Sunday, August 14, 2011

Flygirl by Sherri Smith

Flygirl is a historical fiction novel whose main theme focuses strongly on the question of identity. Eighteen year old Ida Mae Jones lives in Slidell, Louisiana with her mother and her brothers Abel and Thomas. Her father died several years ago in a farming accident. He was a pilot who flew to crop dust.

Ida Mae is fair-skinned like her father, while her brothers are dark like her mom. In her family's past, a half-colored girl was "steered down a path that made each generation light than than light, having children by white men and marrying those children to other mixed coloreds, lighter and whiter until" her father was born. But her father did not marry a white woman. Instead he married a black woman whom he fell in love with.This resulted in his light skinned relatives essentially disowning him.

At eighteen years of age, all Ida Mae longs to do is fly, like her daddy taught her. But Ida Mae is black and a woman and even though she is light skinned, these two things mean it is most likely she will never get her pilot's license. She's already been failed once because she was a woman.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor however things are about to change as America is drawn into the world conflict and new opportunities arise. Ida Mae's brother, Thomas who is a student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, takes a leave of absence to enlist. He is sent to the South Pacific where he is a field medic in the colored infantry.

In August 1943, with the war in Europe and the Pacific struggling on, the US government decides to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots program (WASP) to free up men pilots for service overseas. These women pilots will ferry planes across the continental United States for shipment overseas. They were also involved in testing new planes and in particular were responsible for getting men to pilot the B-29 plane, known as the "Widowmaker".

When Ida Mae sees the newspaper article about the WASP program she decides to apply but since she doesn't have her license she decides to use her father's old license and replace the picture. So Ida Mae applies to the program, falsifying the license and lying to pass as a white woman. But when she gets accepted and begins her training she begins to realize the cost to herself and her family. Can she pay such a high price for independence and for the love of flying? Can she continue to deny who she is?

In the end, Ida decides that living a lie isn't worth the price and that she has to be true to who she is - a black woman AND a pilot.

Flygirl, is a slow moving account of the WASP program and fighting the war on the home front. Readers looking for action won't find much here. There's actually no historical record of black women in the WASP program, so unfortunately, there is no real woman to form the basis of the story behind Flygirl. That was a disappointment to discover. But it was interesting to learn about the women aviators who came from all parts of American society and how they were never made officers in the airforce that they served so bravely.

However, where Flygirl succeeds is in exploring themes of identity and the meaning of family. Flygirl offers readers a perspective on being a black woman in the racially charged southern US. But the perspective is that of a black woman who could pass for white and whether or not she should make the choice to cross over and pass as a white woman as well as the repercussions she faces in doing so. If Ida Mae decides to pass as white, it means leaving her family behind forever. It is denying a part of her heritage and denying a part of herself.

Her mother, dark skinned, tries to warn Ida Mae about what she will face and how once she crosses over she can't cross back. Crossing the line from black to white means disowning your family and never been able to see them again. Ida Mae's father realized that this was what his mother was asking him to do. Ida Mae soon finds it difficult to be in "white" society. She avoids suntanning so her skin won't darken and she is constantly worrying about her hair frizzing when it gets wet. It is difficult to watch her own colored people treated poorly in shops, although she does stick up for a black man in the hardware store. And when a white instructor shows interest in Ida, she must be careful not to encourage him. How could she ever bring a white man home to her black mother?

Although Ida loves her job and her new found independence, at the same time she has lost something too. She has lost her family, a very important part of her life. This conflict is demonstrated when Ida's mother shows up at the base to tell her that Thomas is missing overseas and to ask for Ida's help in locating him. Ida Mae cannot betray her situation as a white woman and so she must play at her mother being the family maid visiting. This brings feelings of shame and regret to Ida who is forced to treat her mother without dignity in front of the white guard to avoid being discovered for who she really is.

Flygirl was chosen as one of the "2010 Best Books for Young Adults".

Book Details:
Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons
275 pp.

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