Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith, was published in 2008.
(Sherri L. Smith also wrote Orleans, which I’d read for Popsugar’s 2017 Reading Challenge.)
It’s December, 1941. Ida Mae Jones loves to fly. Her daddy taught her to fly in his old Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny”. When daddy died in a farming accident last year, Ida Mae had wanted to take over his crop dusting business. Her grandfather took her to Tuskegee, Alabama, to get her pilot’s license. Ida Mae passed the flying test, but the instructor refused to issue a license to a woman.
Now, Ida Mae Jones has a job cleaning a white family’s house in New Orleans, Louisiana. She plans to use the money she earns to sneak off to Chicago, where there’s a flight school run by colored pilots. Maybe they will issue Ida Mae her pilot’s license.
On the bus ride home to Slidell, Ida Mae learns that the Japanese army has attacked the US military base in Hawaii.
It’s August, 1943. Ida Mae’s brother, Thomas, had left medical school to fight in the war. Due to gas rationing, daddy’s Jenny is up on blocks. Ida Mae can no longer fly, with or without a license. She’s still cleaning houses with her friend Jolene.
Then she reads about a new program named the Women Airforce Service Pilots. The US Army is training women to ferry airplanes from the factories to army bases, freeing the men to do the more important job of fighting the war.
It’s Ida Mae Jones’ chance to fly again, as well as serve her country. There’s just one, big problem: WASP is open to white women only. Even if, by some miracle, the army lets a colored girl in, the town of Sweetwater, Texas certainly won’t.
Ida Mae’s skin is light enough that she’s sometimes mistaken for a white woman. With Jolene’s help, Ida Mae alters her daddy’s old pilot’s license, puts her name and photograph on it, and mails off her application. Of course, she doesn’t tell her mama what she’s done.
Ida Mae Jones passes for white, passes the initial interview, and is accepted into the WASP program. Mama is angry, but resigns to the fact that there’s no stopping her daughter.
Ida Mae Jones is following her dream, and she’s scared out of her mind. She’s scared that her skin will tan too much in the Texan sun, or that her hair will lose its straightening. (Her grandfather suggested that she tell people she’s part Spanish.) She develops friendships with her a couple of her fellow WASP, and feels guilty that she cheated her way into the program. (The author points out that the acronym WASP is both singular and plural.)
If her true race is discovered while on base, Ida Mae could be facing jail time. If it’s discovered off-base, she could be killed.
Flygirl follows Ida Mae’s life and training in the WASP program. It’s a civilian program, run by the US Army, but not truly a part of the military. The male instructors, mostly civilians, are not happy about training gals for jobs men should be doing. WASP often fly experimental airplanes, but since they’re not military personnel, the army won’t pay benefits if they’re injured or killed. WASP risk their safety so soldiers won’t have to.
Flygirl is a wonderful novel. I enjoyed it.