O’Brien’s book deserves favorable comparison to Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff. Like Wolfe, who told the story of the Mercury Seven astronauts, O’Brien focuses on the few to tell the story of the many. Also like Wolfe, he pulls his narrative threads from their disparate beginnings—the dusty plains of Wichita, the wealthy enclave of Rye, N.Y., the streets of Boston—and draws them together to lend his story a sense of inevitability if not destiny. And his breathless account of the Bendix race is as dramatic as Wolfe’s description of John Glenn orbiting the Earth three times in 1962. But most importantly, he brings his characters to life ... These are, O’Brien shows, not dusty heroes for history books, but living people whose spirit of competition and friendship broke barriers and helped build an industry. But while the women in Wolfe’s book wait anxiously on Earth, in O’Brien’s they take to the sky. Their story deserves to be told, and O’Brien does it exceptionally well.
These are women few of us have heard of before, with the exception of Amelia Earhart, whose saga shines so brightly that it nearly blinds us to all other pioneering female pilots ... For women whose achievements were discounted based on their sex, the frequency of skin-deep descriptions feels jarring, and occasionally makes it difficult to keep track of the characters. These superficialities nonetheless give way to vibrant accounts of airplane racing, with the women speeding around the country, crossing oceans, making fantastic turns around hazardous pylons and flying so high into the air that they carry oxygen tanks beside them. Each struggles for opportunity—begging sponsors, borrowing planes, dealing with unscrupulous organizers, and taking risks equal to those of their male colleagues—but with fewer rewards to tempt them. O’Brien’s prose reverberates with fiery crashes, then stings with the tragedy of lives lost in the cockpit and sometimes, equally heartbreakingly, on the ground.
If Fly Girls has a weakness, it’s in its delivery. O’Brien’s intent is clearly to give context, but it needed paring down. New characters, disorientingly, appear throughout. I regularly found myself scrolling back, looking for something that would tip me off as to why I was immersed in pages of long descriptive passages about someone or something…a male pilot, a plane manufacturer, a men’s race…as crashes, competitions, and mechanical failures began to merge together. And, call me squeamish, but I didn’t need to know all the particulars about how the bodies of downed pilots were crushed in the cockpits ... Even so, much of O’Brien’s reportage is valuable, as is his analysis of the bias the pilots faced ... The slice of history Fly Girls covers, even as it could seem like ancient history, is apt to reflect on now, given its relevance to the pattern of how American women’s bodies have historically been 'grounded'—as a way to understand the moment we are in, and, one hopes, find a way out of it.