Windshift by Joyce Faulkner, Red Engine Press, 2012, $17.95, is a rare look into a hidden window, the women who flew for the Army Air Force during World War II. For three years, WASPS competed with African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and conscientious objectors for the role of most-scorned Americans. However, rather than being relegated to the labor battalions of racism, or internment camps, or accusations of treason, these women were reviled for flying military airplanes. The vast majority of the flights were to deliver new aircraft from manufacturers into service. The air force personnel who worked with them when they landed treated them with contempt on the ground, dismissive of their pilot skills yet threatened by their presence in what was a man’s world, Amelia Earhart notwithstanding. Selection to become a WASP was competitive. Those who were accepted were exceptionally skilled and more than a few died or were seriously injured during training at Avenger Field in rural west Texas.
Those experiences were mere forecasts for the rough days that lay ahead for the women accepted for duty. They flew every aircraft in the US inventory, from L-3 Scouts to B-29s, and flew them for delivery acceptance, for maintenance test flights, for upgrade conformity and performance flights, and even for such high risk duty as towing targets. Many were lost in the process, both planes and pilots. The military bemoaned the fate of the former more than the latter. The women flew without military rank or benefits and not until three decades after the war did the government correct this injustice; Congress awarded veterans’ status to those few still alive in 1977.
The literature of this cadre is sparse. Most of the titles, Clipped Wings by Molly Merryman, Yankee Doodle Gals by Amy Nathan, are interviews and memoirs, rarely using available resources as serious histories. The fiction in the genre is even more rare still. Windshift fills much of this void.
The tale of four women thrown together in a Midwestern boarding house near a small airplane factory, Faulkner has elected to write in the first-person style to gently unroll their story. The women are much a piece to those who would be scorned, then admired, then emulated in the 1960’s and 1970’s as liberated females – independent, determined, resentful of the heavy thumb that men in charge placed on their scales, yet able to succeed against the odds. The odds are not good ones: one has lost her husband to a test flight, another is dismissed for her beauty. The biggest threats, however, are beyond their control: a command structure that accepts that it is preferable to consider them expendable, on the one hand, and their coming of age in an era that offers staggering achievements, such as flight, but impairs them from believing they are equal to anyone. They are, but to say more would be to give away details that are best left to savor as you turn the pages.
In one of my sites (“On the Nightstand”, at JWLBooks.com/reviews) I rate books by their lightbulbs – the higher the watts, the more the book keeps you awake I enjoyed this first look through an open window into a world that has been all but forgotten by the heirs of their achievements. I rate Windshift 100 watts.