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Book Review: Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith

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In life, there is often a frustrating lack of big, singular moments that define a person’s struggle. Real life often meanders and flows without providing those ultimate scenes that define a person’s journey. That’s one reason I think memoir and autobiography are two of the hardest genres to write, because a good story needs those big moments on which to turn. Were Flygirl a memoir, I might be able to forgive the lack of a convincing climax; for a work of fiction, it’s a lot harder to ignore.

I have to admit, when I picked up Flygirl and read the back, I thought the marketing people had made an egregious call, casting a model for the cover who looked nearly white for a book about a black pilot. It wasn’t until I read a guest blog by author Sherri Smith that I realized it was part of the plot. Flygirlis about passing, about a light-skinned black girl pretending to be white. According to the same blog, “Once upon a time in the days of slavery, African American slaves who traveled away from their owners were required to show passes to anyone who asked for them, to assure that they were on legitimate business. People who were not questioned, who were light enough, due to the blending of their genetics with those of the master’s family, were said to be able to ‘pass.'”

It’s not an easy topic to tackle, and I was a lot more interested in reading the book when I realized that was what it was about. The story follows Ida Mae Jones, a young black woman in Louisiana at the cusp of World War II. Ida Mae learned to fly her father’s crop duster when she was younger, but a combination of her gender, her race, and the gasoline rationing for the war has grounded her. When the U.S. enters the war, the army forms the Women Airforce Service Pilots — the WASPs. Ida Mae sees her chance to help her country and do what she loves, but it will not only require her to survive as a woman in a man’s army, it will require her to pretend to be something she’s not: white. Her light skin makes it possible, but is it the right thing to do?

Although the book raises those kinds of important questions, it never answers them, neither for Ida Mae personally, nor in any broader sense. I think the biggest problem with the book is that Ida Mae only wanders vaguely towards a conclusion, even for herself. In fact, her character arc flattens out so disappointingly, I was incredulous when I realized I was reading the last page of the book.

There was no climax for Ida Mae as a character. She makes what feels like a split second decision about whether or not she will continue passing on the very last page of the book, and it feels anticlimactic. For me, that made the story fall flat. In real life, things sometimes work that way. Sometimes people don’t come to life-changing conclusions or learn lessons that change them in a fundamental way, but it’s one of the key elements of a strong story. Ida Mae doesn’t change from the beginning of the story, for better or for worse. She starts in one place and ends up in much the same place she started, despite her experiences. Additionally, she faces no consequences of any weight for her decision. I’m not making any personal judgments about whether or not she should have faced consequences from a moral standpoint, but from a story standpoint, I think it would have made a much stronger book.

Flygirl‘s story never seems to reach a climax. Instead, it peters out, as though it just ran out of gas. That’s as dangerous a proposition for a story as for a pilot in her plane.

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  • Madeleine

    I disagree. Ida Mae does change. She realizes that she can’t just turn her back on her family and past. She also faces consequences for her actions- her mother’s sorrow and silence, and the fact that two of her best friends will never really know the real Ida Mae. As for the ending, she makes a decision to tell Walter Jenkins the truth about herself when the war is over. My only complaint is that she didn’t tell Lily. I think that it is more important to tell your best friend the truth than an instructor. I loved this book and reccomend it to anyone that loves an unpredictable plot and dynamic characters. I would rate this book a four out of five stars.