WASPs, the brave civilian female pilots who aided troops during World War II, get the recognition they deserve in Noelle Salazar’s debut historical fiction novel The Flight Girls.
Spanning from just before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, through the fall of 1945, The Flight Girls follows Audrey Coltrane, a young woman who loves to fly any and all aircrafts she can get her hands on and who dreams of owning her own airfield one day. Working in Hawaii as a military flight instructor, she forms special bonds with other like-minded and like-spirited women. Not only that, but she meets and befriends Lieutenant James Hart, a man who makes her question her previous stance against romance and marriage.
Just as she’s starting to settle in to her new life and explore all of the ways she can expand upon her original dream, she witnesses one of the most tragic events in United States history: the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
After the attack, Audrey struggles to maintain control over her life, grieving her losses. But she never once questions what to do next. As James is shipped out, Audrey joins the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs for short), putting her skills to good use in aiding her country in its time of need.
But as the losses keep piling up and news of James’ disappearance finds her, Audrey must find the courage and motivation within herself (and from her friends) to keep moving forward, hold on to her hope, and not lose sight of her dreams.
Right off the bat, one of the aspects of The Flight Girls that truly sets it apart from other historical fiction books about World War II is its focus on the WASP program. Until very recently, the courageous pilots in this program have flown largely under the radar. Though they underwent official Army training and flew every type of aircraft imaginable, they weren’t considered military personnel until they were granted veteran status in 1977 (and, later, awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2009).
In fact, while I was vaguely aware of them before picking up this novel, I had no idea of how little I knew about the program or the civilian women pilots until reading The Flight Girls. I didn’t realize how little respect they received in their service and just how dangerous their jobs were, even though they weren’t actually on the front lines or in any of the theaters.
While there are plenty of engaging historical fiction books about World War II on shelves today, few shine a spotlight on these women and detail just how amazing they were.
Though it’s fictional, Noelle Salazar’s novel puts the reader in the shoes of these talented female pilots, exposing their every motivation, fear, and dream. Through her heart-breaking depictions of the devastation of Pearl Harbor and just how it feels to lose a comrade in arms, as well as the carefully-crafted relationships between characters, Salazar brings these women’s experiences to life.
Honestly, it’s hard to believe that The Flight Girls is a debut novel. This is an absolutely beautiful novel.
Much of the novel’s heart comes from the main character Audrey. While she’s an expert flyer, has no trouble making friends anywhere she goes, and (apparently) isn’t hard on the eyes, she’s incredibly vulnerable and often stuck in her own mind. It’s these qualities, along with the fact that she has a tendency to push herself too hard and doesn’t shy away from breaking down fully when she needs to, that makes her a genuinely relatable character.
This is all even more impressive to consider when you take her full character arc into account. Audrey’s path from flight instructor to trainee to WASP is a fascinating, and sometimes heartbreaking, one to watch. Though her path brings her closer to being able to achieve her dream of owning and operating an airfield back home (in terms of skills and experience as well as the money to pay for everything), it also forces her to walk the line of having to let go of her dream. In addition to adapting to new surroundings and expectations, she’s also constantly dealing with the deaths of those close to her and the horrible ramifications of war even though she’s nowhere near the “action” (save for the attack on Pearl Harbor).
This is perhaps the aspect of The Flight Girls that I appreciated most: Audrey’s gender isn’t the driving force behind her dreams or her obstacles. This isn’t a book about a woman having a ton of doors shut in her fact and persisting through “closed door” hardships and hurdles. Instead, it’s a story of a young woman who knows what she wants and perseveres through hardships as she takes advantage of the opportunities she has earned and rolls with the punches. And the hardships, while tangentially related to her sex and gender, revolve more around her relationships with others rather than her capability.
The Flight Girls wouldn’t be nearly as affecting (or as effective) without all of the amazing women in Audrey’s life or her relationships with them. Every woman introduced in this novel, regardless of whether she’s a pilot or not, is so meticulously and lovingly drawn. Each one is unique, having her own individual strengths and weaknesses. And yet, they’re so lifelike that many of Audrey’s friends will remind you of women in your own life.
That’s what makes this novel all the more difficult to read at times. The way the women connect with and support each other is incredibly relatable and heart-warming. Their friendships are strong yet tender, the perfect balance of compassion and honesty (especially when someone needs to be called out on something). They love each other fearlessly, never knowing what the next moment will bring.
Yet, war has no qualms with exposing just how fragile these relationships, as well as life, can be. Every friend Audrey loses is like a shot to the heart. But, on the flipside, for every friend Audrey loses, the way in which she (and the novel) carries and honors their memory is utterly heartwarming.
I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the central romantic plot of this novel as it was one of my favorite aspects. Lieutenant James Hart is potentially one of the best book boyfriends I’ve ever come across. He’s adventurous yet reserved, humorous but straight-laced. But above all, he’s completely supportive of Audrey in everything she believes and does.
Audrey and James each have their own individual desires and dreams that they’re working toward, and support each other in whatever way they decide to live their lives. These two believe in each other in a way that’s not often portrayed in literature. They want the very best for the other person, regardless of if that best case scenario involves themselves. This belief in each other, in addition to the insane chemistry between them, makes for a slow burn that just won’t quit. Though the war changes both James and Audrey, it doesn’t change the way they care for each other. The central romance here is one that will keep your heart pounding all the way through.
The Flight Girls is, at times, heart-breaking, validating, exciting, entertaining, and swoon-worthy, sometimes in rapid succession and sometimes all at the same time. This is a must-read story for those interested in women’s roles during war time as well as carefully-crafted pieces about close relationships of all kinds. There are some novels that readers look to as the pinnacle of World War II fiction and storytelling. Noelle Salazar’s The Flight Girls is sure to earn its rightful spot on that list in no time.