Monday, May 13, 2013

REVIEW: Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith

by Sherri L. Smith
"'Just listen to me. Listen to me!' I all but shout, and Mama stops in her tracks. I've never raised my voice to her and gotten away with it. But I am not a little girl anymore.
'Somebody has got to do something. So I went. I put my name on Daddy's license and I went and got an interview. And you know what? I wasn't hiding anything when I went into that room and sat face-to-face with an actual woman Army Air Forces pilot. And do you know what she saw? Not a Negro woman, not a white woman, not a high yellow. But a pilot, Mama. A good pilot that they need. Don't you see? This is what Daddy used to fly for. The chance to be something other than the color of his skin...'
Mama laughs then, a low chuckle... 'Baby you don't know what you are getting in to. You do not know. But your daddy did. He knew what his mother was asking of him, every day to turn his head away from his people but never really hold his head up with the white folks either... Are you willing to give up your brothers? Grandy? Me?'"
When Ida Mae Jones is denied her pilot's license because she is a woman, she is determined to become a WASP, a Woman's Airforce Service Pilot. Only one problem: they don't accept African Americans. With WWII raging, Ida uses her light skin to pass as white at the WASP training camp in Sweetwater, TX where she could be killed if her lie was revealed. However, as she bonds with the white girls in her camp and gets more and more comfortable entering "whites only" places, she worries that she is betraying her heritage and her family. How can she be true to herself when she must either lie about who she is or deny the part in her that wants to fly?

This book had a bit of a slow start, with some exposition heavy conversations, but once the characters begin to wrestle with racial identity, the story really gets going! Ida Mae's father's family purposefully married up the color scale, getting lighter and lighter children until they could marry white men. Ida Mae's father married a black woman and was disowned. The fears of Ida Mae's mother come to the fore when she sees Ida Mae coming down the sidewalk dressed as a rich white woman. She is afraid her daughter will deny the proud black culture of their  Louisiana community and her family. There is a heart-breaking scene where Ida Mae's mother comes to base to visit her and she must pretend her mother is her family's maid, acting aloof and imperious while receiving some devastating news from home.

While Ida is at the WASP training facility, race only rarely rears it's head, and the main focus is on Ida's efforts to become a pilot and the ensemble of girls with whom she has built strong supportive friendships. The world of the training base is well-researched and rich. Here, she must face prejudice against her as a women in the armed forces and is given challenges far greater than many male soldiers because some officers wish for the women to fail. She also must face personal demons that, if unconquered, could cost her everything.

It is such a meaty exploration of race, gender and personhood. What makes us who we are? A pilot? A woman? A white, black or "high yellow" person? What is inside, or what is outside? Where we come from or where we are going? What is worth the risk? And if we make a choice, can we ever go back? The story is left open ended. There are no easy answers for Ida Mae, or for us.

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