Ever since I first flew in an airplane in the seventh grade, I knew I had to learn to fly myself. It took me until I graduated from college, but I did learn to “slip the surly bonds of earth” and earned my private pilots license. When I’m not able to fly myself, I love to read about the early women pilots–Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Jackie Cochran and many others. I admired those women who dared to defy convention to earn their wings. I am especially fascinated with the scores of women who flew through Sweetwater, Texas, as part of the Women Air Service Pilots, or WASP. Theses women risked everything to join an army that didn’t want them in order to fly.
Sherri L. Smith adds a compelling story to the WASP lore with her historical fiction novel Flygirl (Scholastic 2008). Ida Mae learned to fly in her daddy’s crop duster. After his death, flying brings her comfort, but social conditions in 1941 Louisiana keep her grounded on two strikes–she’s female and black. When the army forms the WASP to free up male pilots for the battle fronts of World War II, Ida Mae is determined to join, no matter the cost, even if she must use her light skin to pass for white.
As Ida chases her dreams across the country and the sky, she learns that it’s no so easy to deny who you are. In addition to the pressures of military training of the WASP, she must be careful not to let anyone discover her secret. She can’t share her love for her family or her worry about her older brother, missing in action somewhere in the Pacific islands. Family and friends back home don’t understand how she can turn her back on them. Her new friends, Patsy and Lily, don’t know who she really is. She is drawn to Instructor Jenkins, and he seems drawn to her, too, but what would he do if he found out the truth? Somehow, Ida must find a way to reconcile the two truths of her life. She is Ida Mae, the black girl from her family’s strawberry farm. She is also Jonesy, a courageous pilot in the WASP. Must she give up one entirely to have the other?
In the author’s note at the end, Smith shares that there is now evidence that the WASP ever accepted a black woman pilot, knowingly or unknowingly. The WASP did reject pilot Janet Harmon Bragg solely on the basis of race, but did accept two Asian pilots. We may never know all the barriers the women of the WASP broke, but I’m thankful for the doors they cracked open. Flygirl explores that courage with the additional complexity added by racial barriers as well as gender barriers.