My basic review is…WOW.
Okay, I’ll give you a little bit more.
Ida Mae Jones wants to fly. She already does some, on the crop-duster plane that was her father’s before he died, the plane he taught her to fly in, the plane she plans to keep flying after she finds someone who will give her—as a woman—a pilot’s license. Then World War II breaks over the world, takes her brother as a soldier, and offers Ida Mae the chance to do her part and to fly. She may be able to join the WASP–the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots—if she’s willing to live a lie. A big one. She has to be willing to pass as white.
I have read three books in the last month which have characters who choose, for very specific, believable, and important reasons to “pass”—Flygirl, Diane Lee Wilson’s Black Storm Comin’ (see my review here), and Richard Peck’s The River Between Us. I don’ t know if this is a subject that’s becoming more “okay” to write about, or if it’s one of those reading coincidences that do happen. What I do know is that it’s an incredible world to read about, and all these writers handle it beautifully. Smith’s writing is easy and graceful, and yet she continually keeps up the tension by putting us right in the middle of the risks Ida Mae takes by hiding the truth. Risks to her safety, risks to her family, risks to her own self-identity–her core understanding of and belief in the person she knows herself to be.
The best fiction crosses barriers of experience and draws the reader into a world they know nothing about, then make them believe in and understand that world as well as they can without having lived it. Smith has done this. She shows us all the possible paths for Ida Mae; she shows us the choices Ida Mae faces and makes. WWII America carries a great burden of responsibility for having created situations and dangers that pushed people like Ida Mae to lie, and Smith makes that pointedly clear. BUT, at the same time, she has created a hero who, within that era, is also responsible for her own decisions and who recognizes this–a strong hero who is, yes, justifiably frightened and angry and confused, but who in no way plays out a passive role in her own story.
I love Ida Mae Jones. I want to put her in a plane and fly her into the future, even a future beyond today, where she doesn’t have to have this battle–internal and external. And I want to step back into the past with her and be the one person she can trust with the truth, someone who would support her and walk with her and go up in that second seat of the plane and let her fly me wherever she wanted.
One last word–this comes perilously close to a spoiler, but it’s not going to cross the lines. There are certain types of book endings that are seriously hard to pull off (and I’m not going to tell you what those are!). Many authors fail when they attempt this kind of ending, and I get very frustrated when I have to read them. Smith succeeds absolutely and brilliantly.
And, yes, you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean! 🙂