This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.
One of the benefits of the rise of YA literature has been an expansion of literature for girls and the sorts of topics they can cover. With hits like The Hunger Games, YA girls’ literature has moved away from being dominated by books about romance and relationships and into genres like sci-fi and action/adventure, incorporating a wider variety of female protagonists in the process.
However, there hasn’t been a corresponding expansion of literature for and about minorities. The face of YA literature is still distinctly white. There are few YA books featuring nonwhite protagonists, and those are usually books about racial issues, such as Malorie Blackman’s excellent Noughts & Crosses. Minorities in YA literature rarely get a chance to have other goals and conflicts outside of race issues. But one good counterexample is Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith.
Flygirl tells the story of Ida Mae, a Southern black girl who passes as white so that she can join the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II. Race and gender politics both play important roles, but always in support of the main narrative of Ida Mae’s journey to become a WASP. The different issues are skillfully balanced; gender isn’t used as a metaphor for race or vice versa, but both parallel and highlight each other.
Early in the story, Ida Mae applies to get her pilot’s license with an instructor who she knows will pass black pilots, only to be denied because of her gender:
Mr. Anderson looked at me and said, “You can fly, no doubt about it. But no woman’s gonna get a license out of me. Go home, Miss Jones. You’ve failed.” (Flygirl 4)
Later, when the war breaks out and she wants to join the WASP program, she finds herself in the opposite situation:
In fact, it’s like Uncle Sam runs two armies at once—one all white and the other colored. Grandy says that’s the way it’s always been. They’ve finally decided to let women fly military planes. I don’t know why I thought that meant colored women, too…
“[I]t’s like when I tried to get my license. If you’re colored, you get the short end of the stick. If you’re a woman, you get the short end of the stick. So what do we get for being colored and women?”
Jolene sighs. “Beat hard with both ends of a short stick.” (Flygirl 32-33)
When Ida Mae pretends to be white in order to enroll in the WASP training program, she is surrounded by other women who share her passion for flying, and as she makes new friends and works through her training, she begins to form a new identity as a white woman. When her mother comes to the base to report that her brother is missing in action, Ida Mae is forced to pretend she’s her maid:
I will go to hell for this, I think. I should go to hell. My mother’s face looks back at me in the dark, my own mother who let me treat her like a servant just so she could talk to me. When the first tear rolls down my face, I can’t tell if it’s for Thomas or for pure shame. (Flygirl 166)
But sooner or later, she will have to decide who she really is. Is she willing to be a pilot if it means denying her race and even cutting off contact with her family? Or should she embrace her racial identity at the cost of being a WASP? And where does her gender fit into all this, in an army that’s hostile to women in almost any role?
Flygirl is a great example of a book with a nonwhite female protagonist that nonetheless isn’t “about” race or gender. It deals with both topics as they relate to the greater story, addressing them straightforwardly without being preachy or didactic and without attempting to offer easy answers to the complex, thorny problems of race and gender in mid-20th century America. On top of it all, it’s a great read with an engrossing story and memorable characters. You should definitely check it out.