Flygirl

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Once you start this one, you won’t be able to put it down.

Ida Mae Jones is 17 years old when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour. She works endlessly as a housemaid to save money, trying to earn enough to travel from Louisiana to Chicago to get her pilot’s license. She can’t get one in her hometown, now matter how skilled she is. She is a girl, and she is black. But her daddy was a pilot and a black man, and she knows she has it in her as well.

After the US enters the war, she watches as her dreams of flight get even further out of reach. She is needed at home, earning money and helping to run the family berry farm after her older brother leaves his medical studies to enlist as a medic. But as the war continues years after year, the Army has to free up more men to fight and so creates the Women Airforce Service Pilots. The WASP. Their job is to ferry planes across the country, test out new designs, and take the place of men who could then be released to fight.

Correction. White women can ferry planes and free up men to fight.

Ida Mae’s dreams return, and now being a woman is a positive. But she is still black, and has no chance of being accepted to the program. So she decides to “pass.”  Being light-skinned, she can act the part of a white woman, claiming Spanish heritage to those who look too closely. But passing also means forgetting where she comes from, and denying all those important to her. It also means denying herself. Will it all be worth it?

So much going on in this book!  I have always loved the story of the WASP, and the fight they had to be accepted by the military and by society. But this is a new twist. As a teen, I devoured everything I could get my hands on about the organization, but there was never anything like Flygirl.

So well written. So well researched. Such a believable main character and believable story. With the WASP as the backdrop for Ida Mae’s journey, author Sherri Smith captures the time and place and societal norms perfectly. Wartime, racism, sexism. While the war may have broken down a lot barriers, some were still left firmly in place.

Ida Mae is a strong, smart, independent, young woman who is willing to do what it takes to achieve her dreams in the face of prejudice that I cannot even imagine. She is confronted with incredible challenges and the stakes are immeasurably high if her race is discovered. Her gender has her at a disadvantage to begin with, and her race only lengthens her odds even more.

Her cast of friends is varied, as is her interaction with them and her family. Jolene, her boy-crazy best friend from back home who is deeply hurt when Ida Mae leaves, and her two new sisters-in-arms, Patsy and Lily, who have their own histories they have to overcome. Even with Jolene, Ida Mae can only be slightly more honest about herself than she can be with her white friends, albeit for different reasons.

The family dynamic is interesting and familiar. Her Mama wants to forbid her joining up and flying; knowing a bit more about the world than her daughter does, she sees the pitfalls. Her younger brother and Grandy support her and think she should do what to takes to get ahead, while her older brother is proud but thinks her place is at home. Each in their own way, they know there is a line that cannot be crossed. And the idea that once Ida Mae had passed she could never return to her roots never occurred to me. Her choice to fly meant more than just tough training under horrible circumstances, but a loss of friends and family.

The language, the writing, the descriptions, and the pacing are excellent. Time skipped around a bit during the training – some periods took a long time, others seemed over in a flash – but given that the training is just the back drop to Ida Mae’s journey and the reader doesn’t need a detailed list of every flight the trainees took to get their wings, it all works.

If I have any criticism, it is that that the ending is a bit abrupt. It is not a cliff-hanger or a resolution, nor does it give any indication as to which way Ida Mae would live her life after the war. Does she go home or does she continue to pass? The book just ends. But that small disappointment aside, Flygirl is a great read for anyone.

A wonderful story about a little known organization in American history, about a time when black women faced even more prejudice, and an incredible story about overcoming odds that seem insurmountable. The hurdles these women of colour overcame, including in some cases the need to turn their backs on their families in order to achieve goals, are remarkable.

Smith has included an extensive bibliography at the end of the book, for those who wish to learn more.

Flygirl was published January 22nd, 2009 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

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