Review: Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith

12 Aug

So things got a bit rough for awhile there, but I’m going to give this whole thing another try. One regular feature from now on is going to be me talking about historical I’ve read recently. Definitely novels, maybe some non-fiction as well, popular or academic.

Title: Flygirl

Author: Sherri L. Smith

Period: 1941-45

Location: USA

Let’s not mince words: I loved this. Flygirl is the story of Ida Mae Jones, a young black woman from New Orleans, who decides to pass as white and join the WASP—Women’s Airforce Service Pilots—program. The WASP was instituted to free up male pilots for combat duty; women ferried planes, test-piloted new aircraft, and flew targets during practice.

If you know me at all, you will know that I like a lot of the following things:

  1. women doing awesome things
  2. examinations of how race, class, and/or gender intersect
    1. in American history
  3. young adult fiction
  4. family and duty-to-family issues

If you do not know me…well, now you know that. :D Basically this delivered all of those things, and as a consequence, I freaking adored it.

As I said, in order to join the program, Ida Mae must pass as white. I said this quickly, and if in doing so I implied that the decision is made or treated lightly in the book, that’s my mistake, because it so totally is not. In fact, one of the things that drew me to it in the first place was the fact that the issue of passing was addressed; it was something I hadn’t read much about in the past and was interested in learning more on. Ida Mae agonizes over the decision to pass, not only because of the constant care she must take (she makes excuses not to sunbathe with the other WASP and comes up with an elaborate system to keep her hair from getting wet when swimming), but because in passing, she must cut herself off completely from her family. Ida Mae’s brother goes missing in action; when their mother comes to the Texas base where WASP training takes place to deliver the news in person, Ida Mae must tell the other girls in her flight that the woman is “my mother’s maid”. Though the issue is a constant struggle, it’s not repetitive in the least: this is such an essential conflict in the narrative, and is so skilfully handled, that to ignore the constant agony Ida Mae endures is to short-change the character and the readers both.  Flygirl raises a whole lot of difficult questions and issues, with regards to race and gender both, and it doesn’t offer easy, pat answers to them, though Smith still manages to wrap everything up into a satisfying (if open) ending.

And then, of course, there are the characters. Ida Mae narrates the story, and her voice is crystal-clear, brisk, and engaging. The characters, particularly her strong-willed mother and fellow WASP airwomen, are lively and rich characters—not an easy thing to accomplish in a first-person narrative. This is a war story, so some of the cliches that go along with that exist here, but this is…I don’t want to say a subversion, because that’s totally not what it is. This is the story of a black woman’s war, and more than that, it’s a powerful reminder that yes, by God, such a thing existed.

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