Many moons ago (11 years ago, to be exact. Good lord, how time flies!), I was an intern at the Women’s Museum. Part of my job was to process the many, many loans–it’s a non-collecting institution so every artifact on display had to come from somewhere else. I have many, many stories about that summer and the artifacts I got to care for (with white gloves, of course), including Edith Head’s Oscar and Eleanor Roosevelt’s knitting needles. But I was already interested in movie history and Eleanor Roosevelt was already on my top 10 list of favorite historical people. One artifact, though, sparked a new interest: a parachute. It was in almost backpack form, and it was heavy. It was worn by a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), and I tried to put my brain around carrying a load like that. It was hard to imagine. Though I’ve never done much research on the WASP, whenever I see mention of it, a little bell goes off in my head.
The main archives for the WASP program are held at Texas Women’s University(http://www.twu.edu/library/wasp.asp), which is located about an hour north of Dallas. I’ve been to that archives a few times, researching various things relating to women and war. They have a permanent exhibit relating to the WASP and have an extensive oral history collection. It’s all very, very amazing.
So, I was happy to hear about Sherri Smith’s Flygirl and even happier to see that it was getting rave reviews. It’s one of those stories that should be better known. The WASP story is a great one–flying seems so “easy” now–we forget how daring those early pilots were. And then, I discovered that the main character, Ida Mae Jones, was African American and decided to pass as white in order to serve her country.
Sherri Smith tells us in the afterword that there’s no evidence that anyone like Ida Mae served as a WASP. But here’s the thing: this story could have been told just as easily with a white woman as the main character. And it still would have been a good story. Making Ida Mae African American adds wonderful layers of complexity and opens up all sorts of room for big ideas. What is race? Could you deny your identity for something you believe in? Does Ida Mae have a place in the post-war America?
I admit that my list so far of kidlit history is dominated by white protagonists. And history in general, especially public history, is still dominated by a white narrative. I could go into some of the many, many reasons public history is both ahead and behind of broadening that narrative, but this isn’t the place to do that. Suffice it to say that a big part of the reason I love this book is that it takes a story that doesn’t have to be about race and makes it about race. We know non-white women served. Here’s some brief biographical information on Hazel Ah Ying (http://www.twu.edu/library/wasp/wasppdf/Lee.pdf) and Maggie Gee (http://www.twu.edu/library/wasp/wasppdf/GeeM.pdf), two Asian pilots that served. Smith had the courage to ask the question: “What if?” and answered it with her novel.
Smith also had the courage to end Ida Mae’s story with a big question mark. There’s no real place for Ida Mae after the war and whatever she chooses, she’ll have to deny a big part of herself. There are no easy answers for her. It’s powerful stuff to think about.