Flygirl (by Sherri L. Smith)

25 12 2011

Ever since she was first taken up in her father’s Jenny at age 10, Ida Mae Jones has loved flying. After her father’s untimely death, Ida has pretty much taken over his crop dusting at their farm in Louisiana. Ida has been saving up to go to Chicago to obtain her freedom ticket (flying license). When her younger brother Abel shows her a newspaper clipping about the WASP – the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots she realizes that not only can she support her brother Thomas (who has enlisted) and the war effort this way, but it might also be her only chance to accomplish her dreaming of flying. The two remaining obstacles, though, are her missing flying license and the fact that Ida Mae is black in a thoroughly segregated society. Ida resourcefully scams her way in, exchanging her father’s picture on his license with hers.  And because she is very light-skinned, she decides to try to ‘pass’ as white.

Flygirl is all about 2 different but related issues: one about gender, the other about race. However it doesn’t quite deliver on both. Firstly, all the female pilots in Flygirl really want is to be accepted as great pilots just in the way US army men were. The time is the 1940s, and despite the fact that women had acquired some rights, society as a whole didn’t not yet treat men and women as equals. More than once, Ida has to hear a comment like “if a woman can fly this plane, then so can a man”. The WASP women were only considered as half-assed, and the ‘real US army pilots’ used them more as guinea pigs than anything else. The fact that WASP wasn’t an integral part of the US army is telling. It actually took until 1977 for WASP women to be granted Veteran status. And only in 2009 did President Obama award them the Congressional Medal of Honor. During the wartime, it didn’t really matter if one or two women were lost to the cause, so it seemed. They were only women after all.

The racial issue, on the other hand, is not as poignantly explored as the gender question.  When Ida gets into the training program, for instance, the fact that she is in fact black never really gets challenged. Not by the other characters at WASP (her 2 best friends there, Patsy and Lily, are also ‘outcasts’ (a carnie and a Jew) despite their more privileged white status), and only marginally by Ida herself (e.g. she “quivers” when she has to enter a bar that says ‘whites only’). Flygirl promises to be a story about a black girl’s dilemma about ‘passing’: where does Ida belong? In the white world or in the black world? But besides some references of Ida going into a bar, or a girl (Nancy) that doesn’t seem to like Ida very much (though it’s never exactly clear why), there is very little or no confrontation with ‘white culture’, which is pretty weird considering that first Ida is a black maid in a white Louisiana household and second, she has her training in Sweetwater, Texas… maybe a sign that Ida’s ‘passing’ is successful, at least seen from the ‘white’ end?? Then again, there is the conflict with her own family and her best friend Jolene who warn her about her course of action.  Especially Jolene suggests there might be no turning back for her. Despite this, though, an African-American girl in the 1940s who tries to pass as white and does not get called on this by white society, or doesn’t experience some sort of internal conflict because of this confrontation, doesn’t sound all that convincing. It seemed awfully easy for Ida to scam her way into the training; it also seemed very easy for her to ‘pass’ as white all through the war… As a reader you expect conflict, confrontation, reflection, … yet you don’t get it. What was missing most, besides a ‘crisis situation’, was internal conflict on Ida’s part: she says she has problems being black in a white environment, but her actions don’t show this. Ida is a female pilot first and foremost, never a black girl in a white army who feels conflicted about losing her identity. The problems she experiences are not because of her being black or her ‘passing’, but because she is a girl.

All this sounds like the cat didn’t really like this book, but that’s not really the case. The cat actually enjoyed reading Flygirl. As historical fiction it deals with a lesser known aspect of WWII in America, one that deserved to be put in the limelight. So on a (hi-)story level, this book works quite well. In contrast, on the level of character and character interaction and conflict/resolution it could have been a lot more fleshed out. However, for all its flaws, Flygirl is a decent book, honest and with the heart in the right place.

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