All Ida Mae Jones wants to do is fly. Her daddy was a pilot, and years after his death she feels closest to him when she's in the air. But as a young black woman in 1940s Louisiana, she knows the sky is off limits to her, until America enters World War II, and the Army forms the WASP-Women Airforce Service Pilots. Ida has a chance to fulfill her dream if she's willing to use her light skin to pass as a white girl. She wants to fly more than anything, but Ida soon learns that denying one's self and family is a heavy burden, and ultimately it's not what you do but who you are that's most important.
Ida Mae Jones grew up on a farm in Louisiana, where her father made ends meet through cultivating his own strawberry farm and doing crop dusting runs for other farmers. It was while tagging along on some of those crop dusting flights that Ida first got the desire to become a pilot herself. By the 1940s, Ida's father has passed away and World War 2 is just on the horizon. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ida's brother, a medical student, decides to enlist as a field medic. He knows Ida's got the itch to fly but begs her to stay home and help care for farm and family. She tries to obey her brother's wish for a time but just feels like she's sitting on her hands while the world seems to be going up in flames. Ida sneaks out to town one day to apply for a position in the WASP (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) program. Once she finds she's accepted she's got to break it to her mom. Ida's mother reluctantly gives her approval for Ida to travel to Texas to start training.
The big secret she's hiding from her new fellow cadets is the fact that she's black, though she believes (or at least fervently hopes) she's light enough to pass as white. Every day she fears her secret being discovered, particularly when a white male instructor takes a special interest in her. Ida also battles against prejudices that stem simply from her being a woman in a man's military. One instructor makes it his personal mission to carry out all kinds of crazy, dangerous schemes to try to get the female pilots to quit. Still, she continues to pursue her dream, inspired by her hero Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to earn a pilot's license.
One of Ida's biggest concerns she struggles to find an answer to throughout the whole course of the novel is which way is the best way to live her life, in regards to her race. She feels that if she stays in her hometown, the best work she can hope for as a black woman in a small Southern town is being a housekeeper. Though she successfully "passed" as white and got into the WASP program, she fears that now she's locked herself into that role, never being able to come forward about her true heritage. Does she walk away from her family in order to pursue her dreams? It's terrible to think that people were, and maybe still are, forced to ask these kind of questions because of unfair, illogical, racist thinking running the world. I think one of the hardest scenes to read in this story is when Ida's mother comes to visit her at the flight school but has to pose as Ida's family maid, so as not to blow Ida's cover as a well-bred white woman. The way Ida has to address her own mother just to keep her secret safe is heartbreaking, but there's also something touching in how Ida's mother would do that for her daughter, if it meant her girl could have the best life possible. But it just hurt to read that passage, the cruelty social expectations put there.
It was also painful to read Ida's mother's speech about how she tries to do everything she can for the war effort -- use ration books, plant a victory garden, save bacon grease for the Army's munitions department -- yet the Army won't put too much effort into trying to locating her son when he goes MIA, because he's black.
The first part of this novel, though good, was a little bit slow for me. It did pick up in the later chapters though, the closer the women got to completing training. I think Ida's visit with her mother at the flight school was the turning point where I felt much more invested in the characters. There's another major event later on in the story where I suspected (at the start of the novel) that something like it might be written in at some point, but actually reading it was still somehow a bit of a shock to me! It is a pivotal moment in the life of Ida and greatly influences her career decisions after that point.
I liked the distinct differences in all the female pilots Ida meets and works with, and after reading Sherri Smith's Author's Note, I'm keen to pick up more books on the subject. Just some of the interesting factoids that Smith notes:
> WASP crews were used as test pilots on new aircraft technology during World War 2. One scene in Smith's Flygirl, describing one such test flight, was actually inspired by real life WASP Dora Dougherty Strother and Dorothea Johnson who were chosen to test the prototype of the B-26 Maurader, aka "The Widowmaker". Also tested, the behemoth B-29 whose size scared the beheebus outta many a male pilot! It was incredible (and infuriating!) to learn that the brave women of the WASP program, though definitely considered members of the military, were NOT granted full military benefits while they were enlisted. In fact, it wasn't until 1977 when the Carter administration passed the WASP Act that these women and their family members were provided with honorable discharges and / or full veteran benefits. 1977! Also, it wasn't until the 1990s that female pilots were allowed to fly combat missions. Prior to that, female pilots were stuck being glorified test pilots and supply runners, pretty much. Still important work, don't get me wrong, but I can imagine how aggravating it must have been for those pilots, given how many flight hours they put into trying to be accepted as equally skilled as any of the male pilots.
>The WASP program was disbanded after World War 2. Many of the female pilots simply went back to their old lifestyles, embracing motherhood or taking up jobs as secretaries, teachers, shop clerks. Others who still had the desire to be in the air became flight instructors while yet others took up careers as Alaskan bush pilots. As far as the storyline of Smith's Flygirl, she says that she couldn't find any factual evidence of any African-American women on the rosters of the WASP program, no stories of anyone trying to pass for white ... that was solely Smith's "what if". However, she did find record of one Janet Harmon Bragg, who trained at Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago, who did apply for the WASP program but seemed to be turned away solely due to reasons of race.
>There were two Asian women accepted into the WASP program: Hazel Ah Ying (who was later killed in action when her plane collided with another) and Maggie Gee.
* Here you can read a letter from a real life WASP who wrote to Sherri Smith after reading Flygirl.
* If you want to learn more about the WASP program, you can visit websites Wings Across America or the website for the WASP museum.