Monday, January 05, 2009


Smith, Sherri L. 2009. Flygirl.

It's a Sunday afternoon and the phonograph player is jumping like a clown in a parade the way Jolene and I are dancing.

Meet Ida Mae Jones, a young black woman with big, big dreams who won't allow a little thing like prejudice to stand in her way. Set during World War II, Ida Mae's story focuses on her desire to fly. But after Pearl Harbor, even if she had the money and know how, it would be nearly impossible. (She has the know how, but no license. And she certainly doesn't have the money to travel to a place--to an institution of one sort or another--that will give her her flying test and license.) But the dream persists all the same, and in fact this dream intensifies when she sees an ad for the Women Aiforce Service Pilots--the WASP.

For women with pilot's license, the WASP offers a once in a lifetime experience. A chance to fly. And not just fly, but to fly military planes. A chance to serve the country during the war. A chance to release men from these 'tedious' tasks so they can better serve their country by going overseas. The ad doesn't say--white women only--but everyone in Ida Mae's life tries to tell her this is so.

Not just anyone can be a WASP--you have to first pass an interview, then you have to pass almost a full year of training--training which included learning to fly several military planes, learning to fly cross country, learning to fly by instruments only, learning to fly at night, reading maps, plotting courses, etc.

Ida Mae wants this more than anything--and she's willing to risk everything for her one chance. As the lightest in her family, and one of the lightest in her neighborhood, Ida Mae decides to try her hand at passing. Passing for a white woman. Risky business if anyone discovers her little secret. And it's something that displeasures her family. Everyone thinks it's a bad idea--they warn her. Once you go there, once you decide to enter the white world--the white community--it is hard to pass back. You reach a point where you belong in neither community.

Ida Mae has passed the interview, but can she prove to everyone--the military, her family, herself, that she has what it takes to graduate? To become a real WASP?

Rich in details of the time and place--World War II, Sweetwater, Texas--Flygirl is a historical novel that will do more than entertain.

Other perspectives: Pink Me, Flamingnet.

Note: I'm not quite sure if my past life as an editor of WASP oral histories makes me a better judge or a worse one. On the one hand, all the details of WASP life--the interviews, the training, the living arrangements, the clothes, the camaraderie, the assignments, the songs they sang, the reasons most were interested in flying, etc. were very familiar to me. There weren't many surprises along the way which means that for the most part she stayed true to history, true to the facts. Which is a good thing. But at the same time, it kept this one from being a page-turner for me. I knew too much to be on the edge of my seat wondering what happened next.

All that being said, the book is thoroughly original in that it takes true facts and envisions what it would have been like for a young black woman--African American--to have been able to pass and be a part of it all. This is something that history is silent on. We know that they didn't knowingly allow any into their ranks. As far as diversity goes, it was all white women with the exception of two Asian women pilots. But could they have been fooled once or twice? Who's to say? It could have happened though there certainly isn't any proof it happened. No one has stepped forward and admitted such a thing anyway. But I like this exploration into the culture and society of the times. How it might have felt like. What it might have been like.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Michele said...

Interesting book, Becky. I haven't read it yet, but will look for it. If you haven't read it yet, Beryl Markham wrote a book that I believe was called West with the Night, which is a real page turner about her flying exploits.

Women still haven't made great strides in aviation. Even today, of all the commercial airline pilots, less than 5% of us are women who hold an Airline Transport Pilot's certificate (what you need to be a captain of a commercial airliner). We're out there, but it's still very much a man's world. And I imagine the number of African American women who hold the certificate is very small indeed.

Times change, but then again in some ways, they don't.

Author Tony Peters said...

This book sounds so good! I am really impressed by this book.

Tony Peters
Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

Anonymous said...

This does sound like a great book to read. Really enjoyed your last part, the "note". It really added greater detail to the book's review.

Doret said...

I am really looking forward to reading Flygirl.

Anna said...

We posted your review on War Through the Generations.

Diary of an Eccentric