December 1941. Eighteen year old Ida Mae Jones is cleaning houses, saving to go to Chicago to pursue her dream of flying. She’s black; but that’s not why the local instructor in Louisiana won’t pass her and give her a pilot’s license. It’s because she’s a woman. The flight school in Chicago will give her what she wants — a chance. Pearl Harbor changes everything. Her older brother, Thomas, drops out of medical school to join the Army and asks her to stay home to help their mother and grandfather on the farm and to look after their younger brother, Abel.
Fast forward two years, and Abel tells her about WASP: Women Airforce Service Pilots. Ida Mae can fly and serve her county. She’s going to have to leave home, leave her family and her best friend.
And she’s going to have to deny she’s black. Light-skinned with “good” hair, if she dresses the right way, says the right thing, she can pass as white. And fly.
Good historical fiction succeeds at two thing: telling a believable story and being historically accurate. Smith accomplishes both.
Flygirl examines universal questions of identity, family, and growing up, with flying being both what Ida Mae wants to do, as well as working as a metaphor for a young woman trying to escape the limitations her country places on her because of her race and her sex. It’s full of high quality writing, with phrases like “Melanie looks at me and her face crumples like a newspaper, only all the headlines are sad.”
Flygirl also tells about a little-know part of history: the women who flew with WASP during WWII. There are plenty of details about uniforms, classes, and flight instruction for history lovers.
As a WASP, Ida Mae faces sexism. Ida Mae’s not facing racism; well, she is but no one knows. Because her father’s family believed in “marrying white so your children could pass into a better life,” Ida Mae is light-skinned with good hair. At parties, she passes the “paper bag test” — her skin is lighter than a paper bag. Her father didn’t follow family tradition and instead married for love. When Mama comes to visit Ida Mae during basic training, both pretend Mama is Ida Mae’s maid so that no one will guess that Ida Mae is anything other than a white girl who is part Spanish. Flygirl takes a tough, realistic look at the reasons why someone would “pass”, showing what is lost by doing so.
Ida Mae’s friends in WASP offer camaraderie and support in the face of the sexism the pilots face every day. With them, she is “Jonesy” or Ida, and is not alone. Yet Ida Mae is always alone; always on guard; fearing being discovered, she braids her hair and hopes it doesn’t give her away. Ida Mae tries not to hesitate when she enters ”Whites Only” places with a silent prayer of not being found out. She sees racism around her; yet if she acts any way other than “white”, she’ll be discovered. Being kind to an old man in a store could expose who she really is. Ida Mae fears crashing — both crashing her plane, but also her disguise coming crashing all around her. She could lose everything if anyone finds out who she “really” is. But by pretending, she is losing — her family and her friends from Louisiana.
For history lovers, the author has links to sites about the real-life WASP, as well as a Discussion Guide (PDF).