Friday, March 19, 2010

Book overview: Flygirl, and two dates for your calendar!

Come meet Sherri Smith at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC this Saturday, March 20, 2010 from 2pm to 4pm in the Museum Shop on the National Mall.

3/23/10 – Sherri will be at the Rust Library in Leesburg, VA for a talk on writing at 7pm. Hope to see you there!

This is an overview of the young adult fiction novel, Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith. A detailed review will appear at the Winged Victory: Women in Aviation site very shortly.

Here's how the dustjacket describes the book:

All Ida Mae Jones wants to do is fly.

Her daddy was a pilot, and even years after his death, her connection to him still feels strongest when she's in the air. But in 1940s Louisiana, being black and being a woman are two strikes against her, no matter how light-skinned she may be.

When the United States enters the World War, the army forms a group called the WASP-Women Airforce Service Pilots-and Ida finally sees her chance to take action: do what she loves and help her brother who is stationed overseas. As if being a woman in a man's army is not hard enough, Ida must use her light skin to pass as a white girl to be accepted by the WASP.

But Ida soon realizes that a new name and a new outfit can't hide who you really are inside. She can't escape the burden that comes from denying one's family and self. As she chases her dreams, Ida finds out that it's not what you do but who you are that really makers the difference after all.

Bessie Coleman was the first African-American woman, to earn a pilot's license, and she had to take French lessons and travel to France to do it, as no flight instructor in the US would take her as a student. (There were black male pilots in the US at this time...they wouldnt take her as a student either.)

She earned her pilot's license in 1921, returned to the US, and began flying in airshows. She would continue to do so, successfully and to great acclaim, until April 30, 1926. She was the passenger in her new plane, and while her mechanic, William Wills, was flying, she leaned out to survey the ground where she would be performing the next day. The controls of the plane jammed and Colemam, who was not wearing a parachute, fell out and fell to her death. The plane itself crashed, killing Wills. A wrench was discovered jammed in the controls and it was concluded that when Wills had been working on the plane the day before, he'd left the wrench in the plane, it had worked its way into the gears and jammed.

Mourning in the African American community was intense, and many Bessie Coleman clubs sprung up to encourage African Americans to fly.

But discrimation against African Americans - as well as other minorities, of ocurse - was rampant in the US at this time, and more so against African American woman, who found the same kind of descrimination against women in their own communities that white women did in theirs.

Here's a brief bio of Janet Bragg, for example, from Black Wings:
Janet Waterford Bragg was a pioneer female African American pilot whose leadership in black pilot organziations in the 1930s created opportunities for others. After graduating from high school in 1927, she enrolled in Spellman College in Atlanta and earned a degree in nursing from MacBicar Hospital on Spellman's campus. Eventually she moved to Chicago and began her nursing career.

In 1933, she enrolled in the Curtiss Wright Aeronautical School where she was the only female in an aircraft mechanics class of 24 black males. Although her race and gender provided constant challenges, she continued to pursue her passion for flying. While doing postgraduate work at Loyola University and the University of Chicago, she worked as a registered nurse at several hospitals and saved enough money to buy her first of three planes.

For $500 she purchased a plane, which she shared with other flying enthusiasts. This group, inspired by Bessie Coleman, formed the Challenger Air Pilots Association, which later evolved into the Coffey School of Aeronautics. The Association built its first airstrip in the township of Robbins, Illinois, in 1933.

Bragg encountered discrimination against women at the Tuskegee black pilot training school when she passed the flight test for her commercial license and was denied the license. She received her commercial license in 1943 at the Pal-Waukee Airport near Chicago. During World War II Bragg tried to join the WASPs but was turned down because of her skin color. In 1946, she purchased a Super Cruiser, in which she logged many hours of cross-country flying. Bragg continued to fly for pleasure into the 1970's. Her autobiography, Soaring Above Setbacks, with Marjorie Kriz, was published in 1996.

Janet Bragg tried to join the WASP and was turned down, the fictional character Ida Mae Jones succeeds because of her light skin. (There actually were two minority women in the WASP, two Chinese-Americans, Hazel Ying Lee - one of the 38 WASP who died for her country, and whose family had to fight a legal fight to allow her and her brother, a soldier killed in France on almost the same day, to be buried in a "white only" section of an Oregon graveyard (a spot they wanted because of its view overlooking the Willamette River, which they felt honored their children who had given their lives for the United States) and Maggie Gee who, after the war, became a computer programmer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.) Black women could serve in other areas of the military beginning in 1944 - for example in Ocotober 1944 the WAVES were integrated.

The first black female pilot in the Air Force was Theresa Claiborne, an Air Force brat who entered the Air Force herself and graduated from pilot training in 1982.

The book is told in the first person, and in the present tense. Here are the opening paragraphs:

December, 1941

It's Sunday afternoon, and the phonograph player is jumping like a clown in a parade the way Jolene and I are dancing. We're cleaning the Wilson house and Nat King Cole's singing on the record. It sounds fine. This is one of the best places to clean because they have a big yard and no neighbors close enough to hear our ruckus. Otherwise, working on a Sunday would be a real drag. But the Wilsons are gone for the weekend and Mr. Wilson said he'd pay extra for a clean house when he gets back. With Christmas just a few weeks away, the money will come in handy.

The story jumps forward to August, 1943

The war is not going well. Thomas has been gone for more than a year and a half, and his letters are few and far between. It's for the best, I know. Mama couldn't read more of the kind of news he'd been sending. We'd barely started fighting Japan when Germany and Italy jumped on top of us, too. The whole world's gone to war.

Thomas is a field medic for the colored infantry in the South Pacific, where we're fighting the Japanese. I don't know how he gets along. He survived the Battle of Midway just months after enlisting, and we thanked our lucky stars. But our Thomas is still on the other side of the world, where boys are dying like flies in the Augiust heat. This war looks like its here to stay.

There's more work now that the war effort is on. In addition to the Wilsons, Jolener and I are cleaning for the LaRoches and the Thibodeaux family on Camp Street. The money's good, but I'm not any closer to Chicago. Daddy's Jenny is up on blocks in the barn for the time being. Airplanes and fuel are reserved for the war effort, not for colorewd girls who dust crops without their licenses. There's not much else for me to do these days except for clean houses and keep my promise to Thomas.

Finally she is accepted by the WASP, to the anger of her mother, who resents that she has done so by passing for white (and more, of course, had to do so that way.) But Ida Mae wants to serve her country as a pilot.

The Valiant is an everyman plane, a basic trainer every WASP checks out on as an intermediate. Flying one of these across country will be like making the trip with an old friend. Twelve planes are lined up in the hangar at Boeing's Pennsylvania factory, just outside of Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love is just a smudge in the distance across the ice-crusted river. I'd have liked a chance to see the Liberty Bell, but I'll get plenty of sightseeing from tbhe cockpit over the next few days.

"California, here we come," Patsy says.

"I can't wait," Lily exclaims. Neither can I. It will be warm in California.

We've got our baggy flight suits on underfleece-lined leather coats, with our maps strapped to our right thighs. Flying in February isn't exactly a warm position, even with an engine-heated cockpit. A quick briefing with the commanding officer at the plant confirms our orders. These planes are due in California at the Long Beach base by Wednesday. It's Friday morning. The plan is simple - fly as fast and as far as you safely can, taking whatever pit stops you need. We'll meet up at designated sleep points along the wayt, but this isn't a conga line. It's every woman for herself, as long as we're all there by twelve o'clock Wednesday afternoon. And if I know these ladies, they will be.

I do my flight check twice, annoying the engineer.

"Lady, just get on with it. It's a new plane," he says.

"I know that, mister. And I don't care. This is my first real ferrying job. I'm not going to mess it up just because some 4-F flyboy didn't fuel her up right."

It was the wrong thing to say. The engineer glares at me. Some of these boys wanted to be pilots and didn't cut the mustard. It must burn him up to see women behind the sticks of these planes. The colored parlor maid inside me wants to duck her head and apologize immediately, and I almost do, but the pilot part of me wins. I know I'm right. I'm following procedure. I take a deep breath. Being colored, female, or both-none of that's going to help me fly this plane safely to CAlifornia. We finish the rest of the flight check in near silence. As it turns out, the plane is in perfect order. But now we both know it's true.

The author of Flygirl, Sherri L. Smith, gives her bio on her website:
Sherri has worked in film, animation, comic books and construction. Film highlights include Tim Burton's MARS ATTACKS!, where she worked in stop-motion animation -a truly cool art form. Sherri also worked for three years at Disney TV Animation, helping to create stories for animated home video projects.

After leaving Disney, Sherri found an unlikely home with a construction company, working in a triple-wide trailer on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport. Currently, Sherri spends her nights writing novels, and her days working at Bongo, the comic book company that brings you THE SIMPSONS in print.

She lives in Los Angeles with the love of her life, and is currently working on her next book. Her previous books are Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet; Lucy the Giant, and Sparrow.

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