Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415
Keith O'Brien highlights the aviation careers of five important early-mid twentieth century women. He points out that, while most people have heard of Amelia Earhart, they mainly know only that she vanished, and few can name even one other female pilot. His book came about partly as an effort to remedy that situation.
As his subtitle indicates, the odds were against women succeeding in aviation. Although only a small percentage of pilots were female, their contributions are highly significant. Additionally, their significance greatly increased during World War II. The pioneering roles of the earlier female pilots helped pave the way for those developments.
In this non-fiction work, O'Brien's style is a straightforward, largely neutral, third-person narrative. He mixes biography and history seamlessly as he highlights five significant pilots.
While all five women featured in the book played meaningful roles, each of them was different and not all of them achieved tremendous success. Failure plagued Earhart—despite her famous trans-Atlantic flight, numerous other successful flights, and the records she set—because her career was truncated when she vanished. Pointing out failures, including obstacles that were overcome, helps create suspense.
The other four leading characters are Ruth Elder, Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Nichols, and Louise McPhetridge Thaden. O'Brien selected them not because they were typical but because each represented a different trajectory within aviation—and women did not go on to contribute equally in all those areas.
In fact, some areas where women excelled were novelties or fads that later diminished in popularity. Klingensmith, for example, achieved renown as a stunt performer (doing wing walking), but developed practical expertise as a mechanic in addition to becoming a pilot.
However, not all the women were carefree young daredevils; Thaden was a single mother who had to fit pilot studies into her work and personal life.
The author's chosen device of spotlighting five individuals helped him create an engaging, flowing narrative with great appeal to a popular audience. He provides enough technical information to convey what the women themselves needed to learn, but does not imply he is writing for an aviation specialist or even a well-versed aficionado.
Largely confining his story to a ten-year period—the decade preceding Earhart's 1937 disappearance, which spans the Roaring Twenties through the Great Depression—is also effective. Because of the obstacles that were placed in women's paths in those years, we can learn the histories of a handful of women but will likely never learn how many other women were dissuaded from pursuing aviation.
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