This 2016 novel is appealing both as women’s fiction and potentially as a YA novel. The two main characters are Mary Browning, an eight-seven year old facilitator of a senior citizen writer’s group and Elyse Strickler, the fifteen-year old aspiring writer who stumbles into the group by mistake.
Both characters tell lies and live with secrets. Mary has come to her position through a random remark made to one of the other tenants of the building where she moved after her doctor husband’s death. She was never an editor at a publishing house. But she was a flyer for the Women Air Service Pilots corps in Texas during World War II. A fact she has kept a secret for over sixty years, not out of shame, but because she gave up her life, her family, and her ethnic/religious heritage when the man she loved decided to hide his Jewish identity to get into medical school.
Because Elyse reminds her of her dead sister, Mary chooses her to help write a memoir that will give her some closure and a new relationship begins. Coincidentally, Elyse is inspired to be a writer because her grandmother wrote a book about a relative, tragically killed when she flew as a WASP in the 1940s.
Attracted to a popular boy at school, Elyse ditches her best friend and lies to her parents to be around him, begging her teacher to assign them as ‘marriage’ partners in life studies. He of course turns out to be nothing like her fantasy and she is at risk of failing two classes because of him.
Finding herself unwittingly privy to information about her parents crumbling marriage, Elyse feels betrayed by both. Her dour attorney mother has pushed Elyse’s father to the brink of adultery, and is estranged from her own mother as a punishment for Elyse’s grandmother moving to Florida. Now the grandmother is dying of cancer and Mom refuses to acknowledge the fact.
On impulse, Mary offers to pay for Elyse’s air fare to visit her grandmother. Elyse lies to her mother about who bought the ticket and is reunited with Margot, a perky positive woman, full of life but in a downhill spiral. The visit is timely, because within a week the grandmother is dead. That event sets in motion a series of forced reunions that reconcile not only Elyse’s mom and aunt, but lead to the discovery of connections with the real Mary—Miriam Lichtenstein.
I found this book engaging in both points of view, and in the present and the past. It is seasoned with wonderful accounts of flight and the challenges faced by early women fliers, their clandestine heroism, their betrayal by their superiors and Congress, and their ultimate recognition with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Early women flyers are a favorite subject for me, but even I learned a lot about these extraordinary women. For instance, did you know that even though their existence was hush-hush, their uniforms were designed and created by Neiman Marcus?
The characters are engagingly and lovingly drawn. Woven throughout the story are issues of religious and ethnic identity and freedom and how perceptions and values change over time, no matter what we do to preserve or conceal them. Ironically, the decision Mary/Miriam made to assimilate to avoid cultural stigmas caused her to be ostracized by her family and cost her cultural heritage. In the present, those all important traditions and cultural identity have become only negligibly important and are marginally observed by the very family that shunned her.
My only complaint would be that the number of parallel characters, alternate names and identities, and the occasional difficulty of telling what is a lie and what is true not only built suspense but occasionally created confusion. Still, it was an excellent read and an interesting glimpse of present-day high school, forgotten history, as well as past and present Jewish culture.