Monday, July 27, 2009

Let Me Fly!

FLYGIRL by Sherri L. Smith
4Q 3P; Audience: M/J

All Ida Mae wants to do is fly. She already knows how; her Daddy taught her years ago. But nobody will give her an aviator's license. After all, not only is she a woman, she's a black woman living in Louisiana. Men in the South don't think women should fly, and it seems that nobody thinks blacks should do anything but work in the fields or as housemaids. She dreams of going to Chicago, where neither her sex nor her race will keep her from reaching her goal. But it's not in the cards, now that her father's dead and her brother has joined the Army. She's promised to stay home and help her family. And for a year or so, she does. Then her younger brother shows her a newspaper article. The government is willing to train women to be Army pilots! It's too good an opportunity to pass up. But when she looks at the pictures of the first training class, she realizes there's not a single girl there who looks like her. The Army doesn't want colored women. Are her hopes going to be dashed again? Ida Mae is very light-skinned. Her hair is light brown and loosely curled. She's been mistaken for a white woman on more than one occasion. Does she dare try to pass for white and apply to this program? It is not a decision she comes to quickly or without guilt. But yes...she dares. If she's ever going to have a chance to have her dream fulfilled, it's what she has to do.

The training is hard for all the girls, and many of them wash out quickly. But the training is even harder when you have a secret that absolutely can not be discovered. Not only does she have the fear of wondering what the consequences of discovery would be, she's also cut off from her family. She doesn't dare stay in touch with them for fear of her secret being discovered. It's a hard life, made even harder by the guilt she feels over lying about who she is. She can only hope it will all be worth it in the end.


I enjoyed reading this book. Though I've read lots of books set in the 1940's and/or about World War II, I'd never read one on this topic before. I know very little about the role women played in the war and very little about the early days of the Air Force. I know a little bit more about race relations at that time, but I don't think I've read another novel about someone trying to pass as white, so that was a fresh perspective, too.

I found the details of Ida Mae's training quite interesting. I wanted more, though. I know it would have made the book longer, but I felt we got just a taste when I wanted a mouthful. But it was certainly clear by the end of the book that, no matter how stringent their training, the Army didn't consider the women to be "real" pilots, at times using them as guinea pigs and as a "see, even a woman can do it" taunt to the male pilots. At the same time, it was also clear that these pioneering women played a valuable role during World War II, whether or not they were given credit for all they did. It's hard to believe it took over forty years for their service to be properly recognized.

At one point in her training, Ida Mae's mother comes to see her. Ida Mae can't hug her or kiss her, or even call her Mama. Instead, they have to play the role of servant and mistress. It's humiliating and terribly painful for both of them. I finished this book several weeks ago, and that scene has stuck in my memory. It was a shattering example of the pain the racial attitudes of the day could inflict.


  1. I started this book and wondered if it would be worth the time, but from the sound of your review, it would be worth it. I hope it's more about racism and less about learning how to be a pilot. True? False?

  2. To be honest, I wanted a little more in both areas. But when I think of the book, my thoughts go first towards how difficult it was for her to go through this training as a black woman pretending to be white before I think of any of the training aspects. We get a sense (again, I wished for a bit more depth here) of how difficult the training was for all the women, but Ida Mae's fear of her secret being discovered and the danger that would result from that event overlay everything. Even a trip to a nearby town to go shopping is a minefield. So yes, you'll get a very clear picture of the racism of the time and place.


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