Reviewed by Kelly Ferjutz
It is the most wonderful surprise to select a book to read because you think it’s about one particular topic, only to discover that it’s also about several other topics, all of which happen to coincide with your own particular passions. Such is the case with this book for me.
Early flight is of interest to me as I have an interest in all things mechanical. A few years ago, a girlfriend from high school (more years ago than either of us wants to admit) asked me to help her write a book about her experiences. Kay had been a pilot, which came as an interesting surprise to me, as we’d lost touch through the years. However, we did do just that, and the resulting book, Sound of Adventure, detailed the years she spent in a plane as well as other stories of her life.
Therefore, I chose The Secrets of Flight to review thinking I’d send it along to Kay when I’d finished reading it. To my surprise, when I began to read, I discovered that the book is about an early woman pilot during WWII (a bit earlier than my friend, to be sure) who in later years became the leader of a writer’s group in Pittsburgh. Mary Browning is 87 when the book opens, and there are chapters of the still-spunky modern-day Mary, mixed with the teen-aged Miriam Lichtenstein who happily followed her dream to become one of the female ‘experimental’ pilots of WWII.
The catalyst here is the modern-day teenager Elyse Strickler, who stumbles over the writer’s group through her determination to become a writer, over the objections of her family. She is half-Jewish, where Miriam was entirely so. How Miriam became Mary is only a small part of the story, which also sheds light on the attitude of Americans towards Germans, Jews, and others during the middle of the 20th Century.
The teen-aged Miriam (she’s 16 in 1938) is so entranced with the notion of becoming a pilot, she can barely think of anything else. Her parents insist that she get an education. Along with her regular classes at the University of Pittsburgh, there are also classes for aspiring pilots, known as the Civilian Pilot Training Program sponsored by the U.S. Government. One woman may be part of each ten-person class, and because of her self-discipline and intelligence, she is selected to be part of the second such group.
Her persistence pays off and she gets her license, only to discover that women will no longer be allowed to participate in the program. It’ll be three more years before she’ll finally get her chance to fly. The famed aviatrix Jackie Cochran, with the help of General Hap Arnold, is being established in Texas, and by hook or by crook, Miriam is determined to be part of that group.
She quickly establishes herself as part of the group of six women in the small squad, and learns even more technical aspects to go along with her instinctual understanding of the planes. One of her teachers realizes that she is Jewish, but the closest Jewish Temple is 40 miles away in Abilene. It’s part of the military code that she should have access to her religion, and he offers to take her there, as he knows one of the families who settled there.
In Abilene, when Miriam meets Solomon Rubinowicz, it’s very nearly love at first sight, but their pathway is full of obstacles. Sol wants to be a doctor, but is consistently refused admission to any of the schools in New York because he is Jewish, and the quota for such students is abysmally small. He finds a work-around by changing his name to Thomas Browning and buying false papers, thus finally winning a place. Now he can ask Miriam to marry him.
However, because of the war news, the death of her father, and the illness of her sister, Miriam cannot abandon her heritage and her family to become Mary, his wife. In May, 1945, her sister Sarah dies of TB, almost simultaneous to the discovery of a wonder drug (streptomycin) that might be a cure for the dreaded disease. Somehow, Solomon discovers this and visits Pittsburgh on the last night of Shiva to propose to Miriam once again. But this time, he gives her an envelope with a train ticket to NY, instructions to find his apartment, and a key to the front door.
Now, 40 years later, Miriam/Mary is 87, living alone in Pittsburgh when the girl Elyse enters her life. There is something about the girl that calls to the older woman, leading up to a most amazing dénouement.
The Secrets of Flight will stay with you for a while with all its layers of life that unfold as you read. There was an incredible amount of prejudice afoot in our country during the 30s and 40s, especially regarding women and those of ethnic origins. (My father came here from Germany in 1929, and we were forced to move during WWII from the home he’d built for us, as our neighbors were convinced that he was somehow an agent for the Nazis.)
The author is a gifted story-teller, and she writes with wit and humor and grace while paying homage – and attention – to the historical details of the period in which she sets her engrossing tale.
First and foremost, Kelly is a reader, then a writer and editor. She adores Regency-set novels, and cozy mysteries. Every now and then, however, she finds something else to enjoy if it has a great premise with characters who belong in there, and fabulous writing! She writes under her own name, as well as her pen-name, Hetty St. James.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by William Morrow. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.