Book Review – “Flygirl”

A Review by Kathy Pestotnik

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.

Book Review – “Doc”

A Review by Kathy Pestotnik

When I was a kid I used to watch a TV program called Wyatt Earp. The theme song was catchy and we sang it at the top of our lungs on the swings at recess. Wyatt Earp was a famous marshall of the Old West, which was sometime before World War II because my dad didn’t know much about it. I knew Wyatt Earp was quirky, because even though he was a good guy, he wore a black hat. And Hugh O’Brien, who played him, was plenty cute. Anyway, one of Wyatt’s sidekicks was Doc Holliday.

As you can plainly see, when I picked up Mary Doria Russell’s novel, Doc, I already had a wealth of knowledge on the subject of Doc Holliday. Or not. I didn’t know that John Henry (Doc) Holliday was born with a cleft lip and palate, and that his uncle and another surgeon repaired the lip when he was two months old…in 1851! Or that he was a Georgia boy, who grew into adolescence with an understandable disdain for Yankees.

Despite his cleft palate, he learned to speak elegantly, and not just in English, either. He was a talented classical pianist. He lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was 15, and his uncle (who took him in when his father remarried immediately) paid his way through a Northern dental school. Another young foster child in the family taught him to play cards. (This was a happy twist of fate, because a dental practice in Dodge City, Kansas, didn’t exactly bring home the bacon, or even the pork’n’beans).

Doc was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 21, and treated his cough with liberal (and frequent) doses of bourbon, and his pain was self-treated with laudanum. I guess that’s why they called it the Wild West:  No Robitussin and no Advil!

Although Doc  is historical fiction, most of the characters are not.  Real or not, they are well-developed, believably flawed and humanly quirky. (If you don’t love Doc, the Earp brothers, China Joe, Eddie Foy and/or Father Alexander von Angensperg, see me after class.  I will eat my hat.)

The dialogue sparkles and made me laugh out loud more than once, so I wouldn’t read it on the bus if I were you. While I’m no expert on how much research a writer of historical fiction needs to do, Russell’s research was prodigious. I read the Author’s Note!  And I’m not even getting extra credit!

This book is available at the Rochester Public Library in traditional format and for digital e-readers.

For more information on this book, you can follow this link and read an excerpt on the author’s website.

Book Review – Moloka’i

A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

Leprosy. Today we know it as Hansen’s Disease and we have a cure.  But even today, just that single word brings fear a vivid image of disfigurement, shame and mass contagion.  The disease does not discriminate and finds its home in the both the rich and the poor; and those afflicted have been historically shunned by society, and even close family.  Moloka’i is the story of a young girl and her lifelong struggle with the disease that ripped her from her family and all she knew.

In the late 1800s, Rachel Kalama is arrested on suspicion of having leprosy and is transported to the infamous Island of Moloka’i in Hawaii, a detainment colony for leprosy victims.  Ripped from the arms of her beloved family and all she knows at the tender age of about 6, Rachel will spend the remainder of her 70-odd years in Moloka’i’s leprosy colony.  The family who once loved and supported her will be gone to her forever, and she will learn to make a new life on this island surrounded by varying degrees of illness caused by this most debilitating disease.  The only light at the end of her tunnel is that her favorite uncle has also been removed to this colony.

I hesitate to say that I “enjoyed” this book, because how can one possibly “enjoy” what is effectively the suffering of others? With that said, I will leave it at “I liked it.”  The voice of the main character, Rachel, was heartbreaking and gave a a glimpse into the life of a child – and eventually a grown woman – who was stolen from the bosom of her family for reasons that she’s too young to understand.

What a heartbreaking journey! To see the fear and confusion of a child as she’s ripped from the arms of her family and sent away to a place where sickness surrounds her.  She’s even denied the ability to have any real relationship with her beloved uncle, who has also been sent to Moloka’i.

Moloka’i is the story of a woman’s journey through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood, and the difficulties her disease presents in living out any real semblance of a “normal” life as the rest of the free world understands it.

This books spans the lifetime of Rachel from approximately age 5 through her death at about age 70. It’s a story about ignorance, prejudice, misunderstandings and fear. And yet, it’s also a story about love and the true meaning of ‘Ohana – Family.   Overall, a really great read.