From the BLURB:
Ida Mae Jones dreams of flight. Her daddy was a pilot and being black didn’t stop him from fulfilling his dreams. But her daddy’s gone now, and being a woman, and being black, are two strikes against her. When America enters the war with Germany and Japan, the Army creates the WASP, the Women Airforce Service Pilots—and Ida suddenly sees a way to fly as well as do something significant to help her brother stationed in the Pacific. But even the WASP won’t accept her as a black woman, forcing Ida Mae to make a difficult choice of “passing,” of pretending to be white to be accepted into the program. Hiding one’s racial heritage, denying one’s family, denying one’s self is a heavy burden. And while Ida Mae chases her dream, she must also decide who it is she really wants to be.
Sherri L. Smith’s ‘Flygirl’ is definitely going on my 2010 favourite’s list. I’m also counting it as one of my all-time favourite Young Adult reads. . . heck, it’s a favourite book all round.
The book opens in December 1941, on the day that Pearl Harbor is attacked by the Japanese. Not long after the attack the US army develop the WASP program - Women Airforce Service Pilots. Twenty-year-old Ida Mae Jones dreams of the sky. Her dearly-departed Daddy taught her to fly for crop dusting. . . but Ida dreams of more. She dreams of heading to Chicago to get her pilot’s licence and joining the Women's Auxiliary. But she has one big strike against her – Ida Mae is black. The Civil Rights Movement isn’t even a blip on the American radar and there’s no way in hell Ida Mae will fly in the skies if she presents herself as a woman of colour.
But Ida’s Daddy was a light-skinned black man (from years of his family trying to climb the social ladder by marrying and procreating with whites). Ida has ‘good hair’ and can pass for Spanish blood. So Ida Mae lies. She pretends to be white in order to join WASP. Ida turns her back on everything she knows and everyone she loves in order to help her country and earn her place in the skies.
Ida joins WASP and flies to her heart’s content. . . but if it means refusing her family and heritage, if it means acting white to get ahead in life. . . then what is Ida fighting for in the first place?
Everything about this book is breathtaking. Even the front-cover looks like a movie-poster and has a Rosie the Riveter feel to it. Sherri L. Smith’s writing is divine – at once a beautiful slice of 1940’s life and a jarring examination of race-relations in the Deep South.
The history is incredible – and as a history geek, I languished in the factoids. I learnt so much in this book and it never once felt like a history lesson. The WASP program is fascinating. These ladies were feminist pioneers and down-right incredible. The WASP’s were stationed from California to Delaware and their main jobs were to tow targets for artillery practice, fly test planes, weather-check missions and ferry airplanes from factory to coast. They were a really integral part of the US air force and their contribution was awe-inspiring. . . especially when you learn about their role in major historical events like flight-testing the plane that would eventually drop the atom bomb. Absolutely incredible!
The WASP’s wartime efforts were even more incredible when you think of the obstacles they had to face. Such as small-minded army-men who didn’t like ‘flygirls’ crowding their skies and rising above their stations;
Martin claps his little hands together with a smug look and says, “The kitchen is safer than the sky, ladies. Let that be a lesson to you. Next?”While reading ‘Flygirl’ I felt my heart swell with female empowerment. It’s just that kind of book – Sherri L. Smith leaves you breathless on the page like you really are up in the cockpit doing a loop-de-loop. So many times throughout this book I had tears in my eyes just from the pure pride I felt for these women. Especially Ida Mae, who has the most incredible (if fictional) story of all.
There’s certain nostalgia for the war-time period. It’s seen as being a time when men were men, and their women waited at home for their fellas to return safe and sound. I loved that Sherri L. Smith at once embraced the nostalgia while also smashing the rose-tinted glasses. Ida Mae and all of the WASP girls are quite gung-ho patriots, and I loved reading about their determination to do right by their country and lend a helping hand.
That night, after dinner, I go into the barn and pull the cover off of my father’s airplane. Even in the dark, she’s beautiful, with her stacked yellow wings, blue-and-white-striped tail, and red propeller. She shines like new. You take care of a plane, Daddy used to say, and it will take care of you. It’s dark in the barn, but I know the Jenny like the back of my hand. I climb into her open cockpit and settle myself inside. The leather seat cups my back and I rest my head, looking at the rafters up above. The war is here, flown in by Japanese fighter planes. I close my eyes and wonder if it will ever be safe for me to fly again.But at the same time, the story is told from Ida’s perspective as a black woman playing white. She witnesses the glaring racism that’s prevalent in the US army. Reading about WWII from a black woman’s standpoint really is a kick in the guts and eye-opening, a very different WWII perspective than I've ever read before. Ida’s grandfather warns his dark-skinned grandson to rise in the ranks when he joins the army, because nobody will care about grunt colored soldiers. The ‘n’ word is used frequently and casually by Ida’s white classmates, and Ida always notices signs that warn ‘no colored’s allowed’.
“You’re back-of-the-church black,” she said, referring to the way folks separate by skin tone in some churches. The blackest people sit in the last row, farthest away from God.While ‘Flygirl’ is a great historic trip and a story about one girl’s dream of flying. . . the real heart of the novel is in Ida’s moral dilemma. She is a black woman playing at being white. It’s all well and good that her lie has enabled her to fly – but at what cost if it means turning her back on her family and lying to herself?
“. . .If you’re colored, you get the short end of the stick. If you’re a woman, you get the short end of the stick. So what do we get for being colored and women?”This book is incredible. It’s the sort of book that inspires you to get up on a soap-box and hand it out at street corners. I feel like it should be required-reading for little girls everywhere – a book about following your dreams and staying true to yourself. . . but more than that it’s a book about female pride and empowerment – a little slice of history that illustrates how brilliant and ballsy our foremothers were.
Bravo, Sherri L. Smith. Bravo – I tip my wings to you!