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?