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REVIEW: Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith

Cover image of flygirlDear Ms. Smith,

When I told some friends I was reading your YA novel, Flygirl, and what it was about, one of them directed me to this article at The New York Times. It’s about the awarding of Congressional Gold Medals to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), who provided the United States Army with their valuable flying skills during World War II, in order to free up male pilots to serve in the war.

To quote from your Author’s Note, “Flygirl is a fictionalized account based on the true story of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots and their heroic feats.” It is also the story of Ida Mae Jones, a brave and determined young woman who is not willing to let anything, even her skin color, stand in the way of her dream of flying.

Flygirl begins in December of 1941, in Slidell, Lousiana, when Ida Mae, the narrator of the story, is eighteen. She and her friend Jolene clean for the Wilsons, a white family, and as they clean, they daydream. Jolene dreams of being a singer, though she doesn’t have the voice for it. Ida Mae’s heart’s desire is to become a pilot, something she already is in every regard but one.

When Ida Mae was a young girl, her father taught her to fly in his “Jenny” cropduster. Ida Mae later prepared hard for her pilot’s test, and performed beautifully when she took it. But her instructor, a white man who’d passed other black pilots at Tuskegee, told Ida Mae, “You can fly, no doubt about it. But no woman’s gonna get a license out of me. Go home, Miss Jones. You’ve failed.”

Now Ida Mae dreams of going to Chicago’s Coffey School of Aeronautics to obtain her license, and she is saving up to finance the trip. But when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, her dream is shelved. Ida’s brother, who is studying to become a doctor, enlists in the army. Before shipping out, Thomas asks Ida Mae to look after her widowed mother, her young brother Abel, and her grandfather, and Ida promises that she will.

A year and a half pass. Thomas is stationed in the South Pacific, where the war is going badly. Black families like the Joneses and white ones like the Wilsons ration sugar, coffee, and other staples. Jolene donates her silk stockings to the army parachute program. “Jenny,” the Joneses’ cropduster, remains in the barn collecting dust, since fuel is also rationed.

One day, Abel brings home a newspaper clipping from school. It is an article about the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots program, which will train women to fly military planes within America’s borders, freeing more male pilots to fight in combat. The instant Ida Mae reads about the WASP program, she desperately wants to be a part of it. Here is a way to realize her dream of flying, and to make a real difference in the war effort, to help Thomas in a more meaningful way than rationing sugar and stockings.

Jolene punctures Ida Mae’s ballooning hopes by telling her the program is almost certainly for white women only. For a brief moment, Ida Mae, whose skin is light enough that she could pass for white, considers pretending to be white in order to be able to fly for the military. It doesn’t take her long to realize that such an action is fraught with danger, though, and she tries to give up her dream.

But then Abel points out a picture of a Chinese American pilot who is a member of the WASP, and Ida begins to hope again. With Jolene’s help, Ida Mae forges a pilot’s license, applies to the program and is granted an interview. Just before that interview begins, she sees a black woman being refused entry to the program due her skin color alone. When the interviewer assumes that Ida Mae is white, Ida nearly backs out, but her dream of flying overcomes her fears, and she decides that she if she is accepted, she will join the training program for the WASP.

And so begins Ida Mae’s life as a military trainee pilot in Sweetwater, Texas, a life that is both thrilling and frightening. Even as Ida makes friends with fellow WASP aspirants Patsy Kake, who was part of a barnstorming show, and Lily Lowenstein, a sheltered and wealthy Jewish girl, she wonders whether these women would remain her friends if they knew that she is not white.

The training program is arduous — two out of every three girls wash out — but even more than the long hours of training, it is her deception that takes a toll on Ida, and her worry for her brother Thomas’s safety. Lily and Patsy’s friendship is a godsend, but in becoming part of their world, is Ida creating a gulf between herself and her childhood friend Jolene?

There is also a civilian instructor in the program, Walt Jenkins, who is clearly attracted to Ida and interested in her. Ida’s heart flutters whenever Walt is near. But Walt is white, and he does not know that Ida is black. How can she allow her attraction for him to show without misleading him? And even if she told him the truth, would a future with him mean leaving her family behind?

Flygirl is beautifully written and resonant. Ida Mae remains a sympathetic and believable character throughout the story. She is both courageous and unsure of herself, and I liked the way we see her mature over the course of the story. I also liked that I never felt the book was making a judgment about her choice to “pass.” Instead, we readers are invited to decide for ourselves what we think of her decision.

Ida Mae’s family members are vividly depicted, from her brothers, who respect and admire her, to her mother, who disapproves of her desire to fly, to her supportive grandfather, “Grandy.” Her friends, first Jolene and later Patsy and Lily, are a kind of second family to Ida. I especially liked Patsy, an independent free spirit who worked as a wing-walker in a barnstorming act before joining the WASP.

The romantic elements play a minor role in the novel — it is much more a coming of age story, and a story about how Ida deals with the discrimination she faces both as an African American and as a woman. It is also a book about friendships and family relationships, and their challenges and rewards. And, of course, it is the story of the brave, patriotic women who served their country for little recognition or compensation.

I have just a couple of complaints about this story. One is that Lily, who is Jewish, is depicted as having led a privileged life and is said to have “never known what it was like to be hobbled by somebody else’s rules.” As a Jewish woman, I have a problem with this depiction, because it doesn’t do justice to the prejudices Jews faced in this country in the 1940s. Sometime in the past couple or so years, I watched “The Jewish Americans” documentary on PBS, and I remember seeing that Jews, too, were turned away from many establishments during the 1940s. I find it hard to believe that even after two years of serving in the WASP in several parts of the country, Lily would not have encountered much prejudice.

My other problem was more minor: a moment of annoyance at something Ida did that constituted cheating on one of her tests in my eyes. But since she felt bad about it and did her best to make up for it, I got over that.

One of the things I loved best about this book was the way the 1940s came alive. I truly felt I had been transported there, and was reminded of films from this time period when I read the book. It’s not an era that I often see in novels, so it was a treat to be immersed in it here.

I also enjoyed your writing style very much. Ida Mae’s first person present tense narration was confiding and immediate. There are memorable turns of phrase like this description of a female pilot who gets some bad news: “Melanie looks at me and her face crumples like a newspaper, only all the headlines are sad.”

As I was reading, I felt I was in the sure hands of a capable author. I experienced both sadness and happiness with Ida Mae, and would recommend Flygirl not just to young adults but also to adults who want to learn more about the first women to fly for the U.S. army, or to experience this young woman’s journey. B+/A-.

Sincerely,

Janine

This book can be purchased at Amazon (affiliate link), Kindle (non affiliate link), Books on Board (non affiliate link), or other etailers.

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

30 Comments

  1. Lisa Richards
    Jan 14, 2010 @ 16:47:59

    I throughly enjoyed this review of “Flygirl” and added the book to my staggering wishlist. This is my first visit to this site and I can guarantee that I will be back. I love historical fiction and this book, though a YA, sounds like one I would lose hours enjoying.

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  2. Janine
    Jan 14, 2010 @ 17:35:20

    Welcome to the site, Lisa! I’m really glad you enjoyed the review and hope that you enjoy the book as well. Please feel welcome to post your opinion of it if you read it. I would love to hear what others thought of this book.

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  3. Lynn
    Jan 14, 2010 @ 19:17:24

    I will have to read this book. My 91 year old aunt was a WASP. Thank you for pointing me toward the NY Times article. She will be among the 300 to receive the medal. I had heard that this was in the works, but I am so glad these women who served will finally be honored.

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  4. Janine
    Jan 14, 2010 @ 19:53:12

    Wow Lynn, that is amazing about your aunt. I’m so glad that she will receive the medal. Very deserving since these women had to overcome so much adversity just to serve their country. I found the posts after the NY Times article by relatives of women who took part in the WASP program so moving.

    I hope you enjoy the book and feel welcome to post your thoughts!

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  5. Nicole
    Jan 14, 2010 @ 23:20:44

    I read this last year and really enjoyed it. It’s definitely worth seeking out and reading.

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  6. Janine
    Jan 15, 2010 @ 00:50:34

    Glad you enjoyed it too, Nicole.

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  8. Evangeline
    Jan 15, 2010 @ 08:37:30

    Thanks for this review. I’m extremely curious about how the author handles Ida Mae passing and a possible romance with a white man, so I will definitely get this book. There is a distinct dearth of historical fiction based around women (non-Tudor, that is), and the WWII setting is a plus.

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  9. Lynette C.
    Jan 15, 2010 @ 08:43:47

    Wow. Great review. This is one of the few times where I’ve read a review here and went immediatly to request the book. Can’t wait to read it.

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  10. Janine
    Jan 15, 2010 @ 15:18:12

    @Evangeline: You’re welcome, Evangeline. I would love to hear your thoughts on this book. As I said in the review, the romantic elements are not the focus of the story. I don’t want to spoil you for how the book ends, but I really liked the way the author handled it.

    The passing was handled well too IMO, although there were times I felt Ida Mae should have been shown struggling more not to slip up and say something that would clue the people in the WASP program to her background. Still, that could have gotten repetitive, so I understand why the author chose to only have it happen a few times.

    The setting was captured so well. I don’t know enough about 1940s America or aviation to say whether Smith got all the details right, but she really captured the feel of the era that I get from movies made at that time, and I enjoyed that aspect of the story so much.

    Agree with you about the dearth of a variety of eras in female-centered historical fiction. The YA genre may be ahead of historical romance in that regard. I remember when Jayne reviewed Primavera, which is set in Renaissance Italy. I never got around to reading that book, but the review got me more interested in YA.

    @Lynette C.: Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed the review. I hope you like the book too. Would love to hear from you after you read it.

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  11. SonomaLass
    Jan 15, 2010 @ 15:57:07

    Janine, from the last quote, I gather the book is in first person, present tense? I just note that because lately I’ve seen a number of people complain that one or the other of those is really against their reading taste, and that they prefer reviews to make clear if either of those is the case.

    I know a couple of readers who will want to know about this book, if they don’t already. Thanks!

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  12. Janine
    Jan 15, 2010 @ 16:09:24

    @SonomaLass:

    Yes, it is first person present tense. I actually mentioned that in the next to last paragraph of the review.

    It’s funny, but I find I often prefer first person present tense to either first person past tense or third person present tense. The combination of first person and present tense can really give a book immediacy and I can think of books I have loved that use it — The Time Traveler’s Wife leaps to mind for example.

    I hope your friends enjoy the book. I was just at the author’s site and saw that the book was one of six books that made the Washington Post’s best 2009 books for teens.

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  13. Marg
    Jan 15, 2010 @ 22:15:26

    I love to read books set in WWII, and this one has been on my TBR list for a while! Glad to read such a good review of it here.

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  14. Janine
    Jan 16, 2010 @ 22:04:51

    @Marg: I hope you enjoy the book! Would love to hear your thoughts about it if you read it.

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  15. Maura
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 16:58:39

    Oh, heck. I was just about to add this to my list until I got to the part about it being first-person present tense. I hate 1p present with the white-hot fire of a thousand suns. I will still check this book out- it sounds like the story would be worth it- but I’ll have to read a chapter or two before I decide whether to buy it.

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  16. Janine
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 17:25:22

    @Maura: I almost always check out a chapter or two of books by new-to-me authors before purchasing.

    I think one of the reasons so many people dislike them is that first person and present tense are harder to execute well than third person and past tense. It takes a skilled author to pull them off well.

    However, I also think that Sherri L. Smith is a very skilled author. I wish that she had excerpts on her site but I didn’t see any. Do give a chapter or two a try; they might win you over. And if you do read the book, please come back and let me know what you thought, if you are so inclined.

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  17. Maura
    Jan 20, 2010 @ 12:08:39

    @Janine: Thanks, I definitely will. And I do intend to check it out regardless of my tense prejudices- it sounds like a great story. I don’t really know why I find first person present to be annoying, but it’s probably holding me back from some good writers. I’ll work on it. :)

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  18. Rachelle
    Aug 30, 2010 @ 23:44:41

    I read this book and liked it and would give it a 4/5 what I didn’t like was the open ending
    and how Ida mae admitted heritage to Walt
    because given this time he could be racist
    or hsve racist tendencies and she could be easily exposed also the front cover confused
    me in the front cover the lady supposedly
    Ida mae look black wasn’t ahe supposed to be brown haired and pale skinned according to
    the description in the books? Overall i thought this book and I liked how Ida mae wasn’t passing just to play white but accomplise
    her dreams of flying

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  19. Janine
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 11:55:04

    @Rachelle:

    SPOILER
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    I see what you are saying and I acknowledge that Ida Mae took a major risk by telling Walt the truth. He had never been untrustworthy in the past but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t betray her trust this time. Still, by the point when Ida wrote her letter to Walt, she had been in love with him for years, so I can understand why she did what she did.

    I actually liked the open ending because it leaves it to us to imagine and asks us to consider all the possibilities of what could happen to Ida Mae. She could be exposed, rejected or accepted. All these things are possible.

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  20. Rachelle
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 12:19:25

    Well I don’t think he was ever presented as racist I mean he tried to help her brother out thinking he was her black nannys son but given the time and given the place where he from which was Texas he could been one of those who didn’t hate blacks but didn’t them see equals as either so in that case she would be rejected
    or exposed too All i’m saying is I really would like this book better if the author had choose the most realistic scenario possible for the ending and be done with it

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  21. Janine
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 13:52:58

    Yeah, I hear you. I agree a happy ending is not likely. Chances are that even if he didn’t expose her, Walt would not want a life with Ida because of the hardships that would entail.

    But I feel that by leaving the ending open, Ms. Smith forces the readers to think about the fact that this could happen on their own and in some ways I think that is more powerful than writing that ending.

    Also, writing about Walt’s reaction would make the book more about Walt and his importance to Ida, and less about the importance to Ida of her dream of flying. I like the way the author ended this book, but we can agree to disagree.

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  22. Rachelle
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 14:23:02

    Yeah but we could have got to see what matters to her more flying and the apple pie life or family which could been a powerful ending as well, The book was about Ida Mae and her determination to fly but I wanted to know if family and her best friend were more important to her or flying and the apple pie

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  23. Janine
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 19:43:43

    One of the things I appreciated in Flygirl was that when Ida Mae first embarked on her passing and joining the WASP, she didn’t fully understand how it would isolate her from her family and friends.

    I don’t know with certainty what she’d do if Walt gave her a choice between him and her family, but I suspect she’d choose her family. I think it would tear her apart to leave them behind, so maybe the letter to Walt is just a way for them to share an honest goodbye.

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  24. Rachelle
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 19:59:53

    I suspect she would but she stated that she didn’t want to be a cleaning lady forever and would love to fly for a living and being with Walt could offer
    that so she may or may not

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  25. Janine
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 20:04:50

    @Rachelle: Good point.

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  26. Rachelle
    Aug 31, 2010 @ 20:35:00

    You made a good point when you said how
    we didn’t get see Ida mae slipp up a lot while passing for white

    When that one lady called her a n word lover I am suprised she didn’t react in anger or even say anything harsh back

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  27. Rachelle
    Sep 01, 2010 @ 17:17:17

    If Ida mae knew and her Walter could never work out why couldn’t she just lied and told she had a boyfriend waiting oversees when he asked about
    it I mean after that I doubt he ask her to work for him

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  28. Zinne
    Jan 06, 2013 @ 16:53:04

    Who is Walt that Ida Mae Jones told her heritage

    ReplyReply

  29. REVIEW: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith
    Mar 04, 2013 @ 12:02:17

    [...] for white in order to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II. I loved Ida Mae’s story, so when I saw that you had a new book out, a YA dystopian set in a future, hurricane-ravaged New [...]

  30. Jessica
    Mar 31, 2014 @ 06:39:31

    I personally have read this book and loved it! I found that I agree with some of the minor problems that you noted above, but overall, this was a fantastic read!

    ReplyReply

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