By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Recently, I bought an amazing picture book to read with my daughter. It’s called Great Women Who Changed the World and it’s written by Kate Pankhurst, a descendant of the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. It’s a brilliant book and, more importantly, it’s created an adorably nascent sense of feminism in a three-year-old girl. Her favourite Great Woman? Amelia Earhart. I kept thinking of this while reading Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl; of all the ambitions one could have, flying a plane seems a particularly adventurous one, even today, when traveling by plane is so commonplace. Of course, Smith’s flygirl is not shuttling passengers around on vacations; her adventure is far more significant.
At Flygirl‘s outset, Ida Mae Jones is carving out a living in 1940s New Orleans, cleaning houses to help her mother pay the bills. Ida’s brother enlists to fight in World War II, which, while terrifying, also holds a certain appeal to Ida, representing escape and, more importantly, an opportunity to finally fly again. Taught by her late father to fly a crop-duster, Ida has a taste for the skies which has already been knocked back; refused a pilot’s license for the terrible crime of being a woman, she’s doubly frustrated by the limitations placed on her for being black in a still-segregated America. When Ida reads of the creation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, she’s determined to leave both the ground and her lacklustre life behind. Just one problem: while the army may be prepared to use women in the war against Hitler and the Japanese, women of color don’t make the cut.
Pretending to be white is like holding your stomach in at the lake when the boys walk by. You know they’re looking, but you don’t want to be seen the way you really are, tummy all soft and babyish, with a too-small chest and behind. So you stand up tall, suck it in, tilt it forward, and try to do the best you can.
Faced with the choice of abandoning her dreams or betraying her family by attempting to pass as white, Ida swiftly opts for the dangerous route of lying about her race, which is a decision Smith handles pragmatically. While Ida regrets the pain this inflicts on her mother, she places her own ambition first, which is something I found refreshing. I’ve not encountered the idea of passing a great deal, besides reading Nella Larsen’s Passing during my degree. It adds tremendous tension for Ida, as she fears being caught out, particularly when sent to train with the WASP in Texas. I expected the idea of race to be more prominent in the novel; while it’s significant at the beginning, the majority of Flygirl is more concerned with Ida’s struggle to be taken seriously as a woman, and the moments in which she crushes stereotypes without breaking a sweat are particularly satisfying to read. The intersectionality presented, with Ida doubly disadvantaged by her color and gender, gives Flygirl a unique selling point; her refusal to accept societal limitations makes her a true inspiration.
Most days it doesn’t matter. You go to work, you go home, you’ve got a family and the sun’s still shining… you’re happy. But then sometimes it’s like when I tried to get my license. 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?
Although there is plenty about Flygirl which is unique, it also reminded me of some books I really like, which served to increase my warm feelings about Ida and her story. She’s at flight school; people think she’s doomed to fail; she’s haunted by the legacy of a lost father: obviously, the book made me think of Top Gun. This can literally never, ever be a bad thing. Apart from if it results in someone singing Highway to the Danger Zone while reading. If you go on to read Flygirl, there will be at least two moments which make you internally yell, “This! This is like Top Gun!” and you will love it. Aside from this, Flygirl also brought back very pleasant memories of reading Michael Grant’s superb Front Lines, which presented a fictionalized version of the war in which women were actually conscripted to fight. Ida would fit right into Grant’s world with her bravery and overt desire to prove wrong anyone who thinks a woman is worth less than a man.
I have only one complaint to make of Flygirl, which is that the conclusion seemed anticlimactic. While historically realistic, I wanted Ida to have the kind of fist-pumpingly victorious ending that she deserved, but I can see that this may have stretched credulity. This is a somewhat sobering and depressing thought. Nonetheless, I really liked Flygirl and, in particular, its heroine. It’s definitely a book I want to share.