LJ's Reviews > Flygirl

Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith
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May 30, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: young-adult

** spoiler alert ** Ida Mae Jones lives in New Orleans and works as a maid, helping her family make ends meet. The novel includes rich details from the 1940's, the era in which it is set. In the opening scene, Ida and her best friend Jolene are finishing up at the Wilson's house. Nat King Cole's honeyed voice croons from the record player. Ida and Jolene use "Murphy Oil Soap" to clean the woodwork. Jolene pats her "Marcel curls," referencing a popular hair style of the decade. Very quickly we learn about the girl's personalities, hopes and dreams, and place in society. In many ways, their mannerisms are those of any two young teenagers. Jolene is "boy crazy" and Ida Mae yearns to leave the family farm and go off to the big city. But this isn't going to be just a nostalgic story set in an historical content. Right away, the story delves into complexity. Ida Mae's dreams are not just the simple yearnings of a young girl for more adventure. She has focused her dreams sharply. In an era where racial barriers and women's roles are firmly set in place, she dreams of a career flying planes as a fully licensed pilot.

She gets her chance when her younger brother Abel brings home a news clipping from school announcing a search for recruits for the newly formed, WASP: Women's Airforce Service Pilots. They're looking for a few good women to test new planes and taxi planes to wherever the Army needs them. Ida Mae seizes the opportunity, and with Jolene's help she doctors up her father's old pilot's license, replacing the worn photo of her father with her own. She thinks she knows what the risks are, but she comes to realize they involve much more than just lying about her status as a pilot. Ida Mae suspects that she must "pass" for white if she's going to stand a chance. Her suspicions are confirmed when in the interview process, another darker skinned girl is swiftly rejected. "I watch her back, her shoulders, the chestnut brown legs beneath her charcoal grey dress suit and I know that she's been turned away because of the deep brown skin," thinks Ida Mae. Then it's her turn for an interview.

Things turn out differently for Ida Mae though, and she's accepted into the training program. On the first day, the commanding officer, Mrs. Deaton tells the girls to look at the girl to the right and left of them in the line and say good-bye because "two out of every three...will wash out before training is over." This is no picnic. Everyone trains hard and everyone is up against the majority opinion of most of the male army core: that they don't belong in the air but home with their families and husbands. But Ida Mae has an additional burden because she must hide who she really is or risk being sent home or worse. She makes sure to always have her hair in braids and talks very little about her own family while missing them terribly. Her secret is almost revealed when she goes into town with her best buddies to buy Christmas presents and tries to help a black farmer who is being grossly mistreated. The clerk suspects her: why would a white woman care? And the farmer murmurs to her on the way out, "Child, you gonna get yourself killed, or worse, doing what you're doing." Ida Mae gets a harsh reminder of the dangerous business of race relations deep in the heart of Texas.

Passing for white has repercussions not just for Ida Mae personally. Ida Mae's mother visits Ida Mae at the training center to reveal important news about her older brother who's gone missing in the war. Mrs. Jones has to pretend to be Ida Mae's maid in order to get to see her daughter. She endures this humiliation because she hopes that Ida Mae, as a white person can spur the army into action. She knows they will do nothing for a black man. Ida Mae can never reveal her racial status with her two best friends because she does not want them to be accused as conspirators and ruin their chances to become WASPs.

In the notes at the end of the book, Smith shares the fact that in spite of their enormous contribution in the war effort,WASP members did not receive full army benefits until 1977. At the end of WWII these courageous women went home and raised families or worked in more acceptable jobs for women. As for Ida Mae, she did end up becoming a full fledged WASP. She gets what she wanted, but not without personal cost and pain. At the end of the novel we don't know what the future is for Ida Mae, but as she says, "I've got my duty, and this is still a war. Whatever the future may bring, for the time being, I still get to fly."
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 18, 2011 – Finished Reading
May 30, 2011 – Shelved
May 30, 2011 – Shelved as: young-adult

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