Ida Mae Jones just wants to fly. But her mother’s dead set against her even going North to get her pilot’s license. So using her light skin color to join the WASP shouldn’t even be an option, but Ida will do anything to get in the air and help her military brother.
Those of you who have been reading for a while will recall that I’m pretty tough on historical fiction. I want it to be inclusive of diverse characters and perspectives, but also realistic. (A character might be targeted with hateful language, but the author should also make clear that those words are wrong.) Depending on the grade level, I’d also like it to be appropriate for the age recommended, not too graphic nor too idealistic for young readers. And, of course, it should be well written and have an interesting plot and intriguing characters.
I’m happy to share that Flygirl succeeds on every count.
The first part of the book deals with Ida’s life before the WASP – what her everyday looked like, how she found out about the program and tried to get in, and her family. Then the second part is about her early training experiences. The WASP were tough, and only a third of the trainees made it through. There were also injuries and fatalities. Two of the latter come up during this book, one happening off-screen and the other described by Ida as it occurs.
Ida is very isolated after she crosses the color line, worried about hair and working hard not to tan. She misses her family and is afraid to interact with any black people – they are more likely to notice she’s passing and she doesn’t feel comfortable trying to act superior. However, she does make some friends at training – Patsy, a former barnstorming wing walker, and Lily, a sheltered Jewish socialite whose fiance taught her to fly.
The book covers events through the end of the war, and strikes a good balance between personal stories and a more overarching history of the WASP. This is a work of historical fiction – there were two Chinese-American WASP and there’s believed to have been one Latina, but there are no known African-American WASP. At least one woman is known to have been turned away from the WASP specifically because she was African-American. Smith’s endnote details exactly which parts of the novel are based in historical facts.
This book deals with passing, although the main focus of the novel is always Ida’s love of flying. Ida’s father was light skinned and his family could pass for white, but he chose to marry her dark-skinned mother. Their children have a blend of their features, except Ida who takes after her father in both hair and skin color. Her father was disowned by the light-skinned side of his family, and Ida and her family have to confront this legacy when she decides to pass as white to become a WASP.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to teens or adults who enjoy historical fiction or have an interest in World War II. Some sites recommend this for middle grades. It would be fine for middle school, but I’d hesitate with much younger children due to the deaths and some swear words. This would make an interesting book group or class read as there is much to discuss and Smith has a teaching guide on her website.