History is filled with moments that disrupt our lives and change the way we look at the world. Think Hurricane Katrina or September 11, 2001; or (if you’re old enough) the Challenger disaster or the Kennedy assassinations. Some historical novels center on events like these. The best ones, however, put these moments into the very personal context of their characters lives.
Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith, begins in December, 1941. Ida Mae Jones is eighteen and old enough to make her dream of becoming a pilot come true. She grew up crop dusting with her daddy in Slidell, Louisiana. She knows how to fly and she’s memorized all the manuals for her pilot’s license; but, since the death of her father, she cleans houses to help support her family. There are only two factors Ida Mae’s passion and determination can’t change: her sex and her race. That was the hard truth on December 6, 1941.
And then everything changed. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II, and Ida Mae Jones made some hard choices. Altering her father’s pilot’s license was a risk. Trusting that her fair complexion and “easy” hair would be enough to allow her to pass for white was a dangerous gamble. Living with her choices was the hardest of all.
What I loved about this book was that it constantly challenged my assumptions and perspective. When I think of World War II, I think of the risks and sacrifices of those in the armed services. I think about their parents worrying and waiting for the next letter. I think about rationing, blackout curtains, and curfews. I think about women drawing lines up the back of their legs to camouflage the absence of stockings. Yet for Ida Mae, World War II presented an opportunity that could not have come to her any other way.
As I read I constantly worried that Ida Mae would accidentally walk into a Colored Only bathroom, or drink from the wrong fountain. Then it came to me. There were no colored people in the world Ida Mae stepped into. There had been no women. I’m sure there were no signs on the men’s room doors. They were all men’s rooms!
I also liked the ending. No spoiler, here. We all know World War II ended, and with it, the WASP program. I’ll just say that, to me, any other ending would have been hard to swallow. I promise, it will make you think.
So here’s to you, Ida Mae Jones, and to you, Sherri L. Smith! You had me all the way!
This book is available at the Rochester Public Library in traditional format.