Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28)
You probably know the name of only one of the women featured in Keith O’Brien’s “exhilarating and heartbreaking” new book, said James Endrst in USA Today. But in the early days of air racing—a sport that attracted huge crowds in the 1920s and ’30s—Amelia Earhart was a member of an eclectic vanguard of female pilots. O’Brien, a journalist, gives equal weight to the stories of Louise Thaden, a Kansas mother of two; brash actress Ruth Elder; high school dropout Florence Klingensmith; and New York socialite Ruth Nichols. All were eager to prove their mettle, and O’Brien tells their stories “with grace, sensitivity, and a cinematic eye for detail.”
Flying then was so dangerous, “it’s hard to believe that anyone, man or woman, dared to board those early, open-cockpit planes,” said Elizabeth Winkler in The Wall Street Journal. O’Brien’s subjects also understood that any mishap would fuel claims that “petticoat pilots” didn’t belong in the air. Just before one 1929 women-only 2,000-mile race, a telegram arrived warning the participants of sabotage—and sure enough, many found evidence of tampering. Four years later, when a torn wing sent Klingensmith to her death, officials briefly banned women from racing—until a male pilot died in similar circumstances, disproving a columnist’s claim that Klingensmith was menstruating when she crashed and her “weakened condition” contributed to the accident.
The story “builds to a thrilling climax”—a transcontinental 1936 race, said Maureen McCarthy in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. O’Brien captures the thrill of the moment when Thaden blew past the male favorites to win. But soon after, she forfeited the trappings of fame to turn to full-time motherhood, said Elizabeth Toohey in CSMonitor.com. Later bouts with depression suggest the decision pained her, and Nichols, too, struggled with life after flying. Though O’Brien’s account is billed as a tale of triumph, these women’s stories, taken together, “are not as unambiguously victorious as the book’s subtitle suggests.”