Fly Girls (O'Brien)

Fly Girls:  How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History
Chuck O'Brien, 2018
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
352 pp.

The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s — and won
Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. Thousands of fans flocked to multi‑day events, and cities vied with one another to host them.

The pilots themselves were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face.

Well, the men were hailed. Female pilots were more often ridiculed than praised for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly, and deadly, pursuit.

Fly Girls recounts how a cadre of women banded together to break the original glass ceiling: the entrenched prejudice that conspired to keep them out of the sky.

O’Brien weaves together the stories of five remarkable women: Florence Klingensmith, a high‑school dropout who worked for a dry cleaner in Fargo, North Dakota; Ruth Elder, an Alabama divorcee; Amelia Earhart, the most famous, but not necessarily the most skilled; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at the constraints of her blue‑blood family’s expectations; and Louise Thaden, the mother of two young kids who got her start selling coal in Wichita.

Together, they fought for the chance to race against the men—and in 1936 one of them would triumph in the toughest race of all.
Like Hidden Figures and Girls of Atomic City, Fly Girls celebrates a little-known slice of history in which tenacious, trail-blazing women braved all obstacles to achieve greatness. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Education—Northwestern Unniversity
Awards—Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism
Currently—lives in New Hampshie

The New York Times Book Review has hailed Keith O'Brien for his "keen reportorial eye" and "lyrical" writing style. He has written two books: Outside Shot: Big Dreams, Hard Times, and One County's Quest for Basketball Greatness (2013) and Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History (2018).

O'Brien has been a finalist for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sportswriting, and contributed to National Public Radio for more than a decade. His radio stories have appeared on NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition, as well as Marketplace, Here & Now, Only a Game, and This American Life.

O'Brien has written for the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Politico, Slate,, and the Oxford American, among others.

He is a former staff writer for both the Boston Globe and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. As a newspaper reporter, he won multiple awards, including the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

O'Brien lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two children. (From Amazon. Retrieved 8/25/2018.)

Book Reviews
Exhilarating…vibrant.… O’Brien’s prose reverberates with fiery crashes, then stings with the tragedy of lives lost in the cockpit and sometimes, equally heartbreaking, on the ground.
Nathalia Holt - New York Times Book Review

Mr. O’Brien, a former reporter for the Boston Globe working in the tradition of Hidden Figures and The Girls of Atomic City, has recovered a fascinating chapter not just in feminism and aviation but in 20th-century American history.
Wall Street Journal

Keith O’Brien has brought these women—mostly long-hidden and forgotten—back into the light where they belong. And he’s done it with grace, sensitivity and a cinematic eye for detail that makes Fly Girls both exhilarating and heartbreaking.
USA Today

Let’s call it the Hidden Figures rule: If there’s a part of the past you thought was exclusively male, you’re probably wrong. Case in point are these stories of Amelia Earhart and other female pilots who fought to fly.

A riveting account that puts us in the cockpit with Amelia Earhart and other brave women who took to the skies in the unreliable flying machines of the ’20s and ’30s.

[E]xciting…. This fast-paced, meticulously researched history will appeal to a wide audience both as an entertaining tale of bravery and as an insightful look at early aviation.
Publishers Weekly

O'Brien details in crisp and engaging writing how his subjects came to love aviation, along with their struggles and victories with flying, the rampant sexism they experienced, and the hard choices they faced regarding work and family.
Library Journal

In the decades between the world wars, women took to the skies as daring, record-breaking fliers.… O'Brien vividly recounts the dangers of early flight…. A vivid, suspenseful story of women determined to… fulfill their lofty dreams.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers Talking Points to help start a discussion for FLY GIRLS … then take off on your own:

1. Overall, how were female aviators treated in the 1920s and '30s? How were all women defined during that era; what were society's expectations for them?

2. Follow-up to Question 1: Did you find yourself becoming angry as you read of the fly girls' treatment at the hand of males? Consider the explanation about women crashing their planes (as did men): "Women are lacking in certain qualities that men possess." Or consider the debate about allowing women to fly while menstruating. What else did you find demeaning? If you came of age before the woman's movement took hold in the late 1960s and '70s, do any of those arguments sound familiar to you?

3. Spend time talking about the women aviators. Of the five—Ruth Nichols, Louise Thaden, Ruth Elder, Florence Klingensmith, and Amelia Earhart—whose story most engaged you? Are some struggles more impressive than others? Discuss the women's different backgrounds. Despite those differences, however, what did they share in common?

4. The women were all connected in one way or another. Talk about their relationships and the formation of the Ninety-Nines.

5. What was the state of aviation in the era between the two wars? Talk about flight technology and the dangers all fliers faced.

6. When Louise Thaden became the first woman to win "The Powder Puff Derby" (nice, huh?), Charles Lindbergh had little to say other than, well... "I haven't anything to say about that." What is your reaction to Lindbergh's response?

7. Author Keith O'Brien says of the fliers: "each of the women went missing in her own way." Why does he make that observation, and what does he mean by the word "missing" other than, like Amelia Earhart, missing literally over the ocean? In what ways did the other fliers go "missing."

8. In the New York Times Book Review, Nathalia Holt makes note of the book's title, Fly Girls, pointing out that "girls" is an often derogatory term used to equate serious, mature women with children. Do you think O'Brien used the term "girls" without thinking (as well as the fact that "girl" titles are a major publishing trend—see our LibBlog on the 200+ girl titles)? Or maybe he meant the title ironically?

9. Holt also notices the way O'Brien describes the women's physical attributes and the way their clothes drape their bodies or fit snugly. She posits that the focus on women's appearances goes against the very grain of the book. Is Holt overly sensitive …or has O'Brien fallen back on a standard sexist trope? On the other hand, perhaps O'Brien is providing the grainy details of good journalism—writing the same of these women as he does of his male subjects (you know, how a man's suit jacket drapes his torso).

10. How much has changed today for women? Clearly, females have been accepted into jobs previously restricted to males. But what about the choices women continue to struggle with regarding work and family? Has that changed?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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