Summary and book reviews of Fly Girls by Keith O'Brien

Fly Girls

How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History

by Keith O'Brien

Fly Girls by Keith O'Brien X
Fly Girls by Keith O'Brien
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2018, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2019, 384 pages

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About this Book

Book Summary

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 wherein tenacious, trail-blazing women braved all obstacles to achieve greatness.

The Miracle of Witchita

The coal peddlers west of town, on the banks of the Arkansas River, took note of the new saleswoman from the moment she appeared outside the plate-glass window. It was hard not to notice Louise McPhetridge.

She was young, tall, and slender, with distinct features that made her memorable if not beautiful. She had a tangle of brown hair, high cheekbones, deep blue eyes, thin lips programmed to smirk, and surprising height for a woman. At five foot eight and a quarter inches?- she took pride in that quarter inch?- McPhetridge was usually the tallest woman in the room and sometimes taller than the cowboys, drifters, cattlemen, and businessmen she passed on the sidewalks of Wichita, Kansas.

But it wasn't just how she looked that made her remarkable to the men selling coal near the river; it was the way she talked. McPhetridge was educated. She'd had a couple years of college and spoke with perfect grammar. Perhaps more notable, she had a warm Southern accent...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. What do you think about calling these remarkable women Fly Girls Do you think it was complimentary or derogatory, and why?
  2. Other than the central aviatrixes, which male and/or female figures stood out for you? Were there people you found that were particularly helpful or harmful to the women's cause?
  3. Even while competing, the women pilots were supportive of each other (e.g., agreeing to wait for Earhart to receive a new propeller). Why do you believe this was?  Would it have been the same, do you think, had the participants been all male? Why or why not?
  4. Why do you think it took so long for women pilots to be accepted as equal to their male counterparts, in spite of their many accomplishments over the early years of ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about Fly Girls.
You can see the full discussion here.


A reporter asked Elder if it was worth risking her life, and she replied that it was. Do you agree?
Again, I can't agree more with all the comments here. I tried to imagine myself taking the same risks. I know I wouldn't because I'm crazy afraid of heights. But, again, if people weren't willing to take risks, how would we learn and build. I ... - JulieAB

Are there contempoorary examples of Earhart's 'Grudge Flight' to prevent fading stardom?
An aviation editor believed that Earhart was a fading star in late 1931. Whether or not Earhart's transatlantic trip slated for 1932 was a 'grudge flight' or not, are there contemporary examples for famous females? - rebeccar

Do you think Raymond Orteig was liable for the injuries incurred by those who participated? Do you think this issue would have a different outcome today?
No. The people that participated know what risks they were taking. It would be different today for countless people (not everyone) who love to sue someone and not take any responsibilities for their own actions. - alwaysdaddygirl

Do you think there are still fields where women struggle for acceptance?
Absolutely! Women have to prove themselves way above what men have to do in almost every profession. - djcminor

Do you think there's any truth, either then or now, to Erle Halliburton's comment that women have been dependent on men for so long that "they are handicapped"?
It depends on the situation. As it has been mentioned in this post, every situation is different. Halliburton was probably like that dye to that time period, which has been mentioned as well. - alwaysdaddygirl

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Reviews

Media Reviews

Nature
[An] engrossing mix of group biography and technology history.

USA Today
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.

Wall Street Journal
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.

People
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.

TIme
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.

Washington Book Review
This meticulously researched and brilliantly written book brings those brave aviators to life. Keith O’Brien has filled the holes in scholarship about women’s struggle and aviation

New York Times Book Review
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

Kirkus Reviews
A vivid, suspenseful story of women determined to defy gravity—and men—to fulfill their lofty dreams.

Publishers Weekly
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.

Booklist
The narrative flows easily....as O’Brien shifts between them, showing their competitive spirit and camaraderie even in the face of the trying circumstances of the first Women’s Air Derby in 1929.

Library Journal
Starred Review. 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. Highly recommended for readers with an interest in aviation history, women's history, cultural history, and 20th-century history.

Author Blurb Karen Abbott, author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
This is more than history; it is a powerful story for our times. This book has it all: adventure, tragedy, and heroes who overcame cruel prejudice to rule the air. Fly Girls reads like a heart-stopping novel, but this story is all true—and thoroughly inspiring.

Author Blurb Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls
Newspapers loved them, of course: lady fliers! But men didn’t want them in their races. Other forces conspired against them too. Storms loomed. Planes crashed and burned. But no challenge could stop the remarkable community of female pilots at the core of Fly Girls. During the golden age of flight, they fought for the chance to race – and won. This is a thrilling story of courage, competition, skill, and triumph.

Author Blurb David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Once in a Great City
America’s past is full of remarkable women who have been unjustly forgotten. Fly Girls gives its heroines their due at last. It is a thrilling and important story, superbly told.

Author Blurb Mitchell Zuckoff, author of 13 Hours
At the dawn of aviation, when every flight was a test of courage, a remarkable band of female pilots proved that a woman’s place is in the sky – or anywhere else she wants to be. This book is a soaring tribute to forgotten American heroes, filled with white-knuckle thrills and gut-wrenching emotion. It’ll take your breath away.

Author Blurb Jonathan Eig, author of Ali
If you liked The Boys in the Boat or Unbroken, you’ll love Fly Girls. This story—carefully researched and expertly written—offers an irresistible cast of characters and high-octane drama. Buckle up; you’re in for a hell of a ride.

Reader Reviews

Rayna T

Fly Girls
I find this a very interesting book. I didn't know there were other pilots beside Earhart. These were independent women which I always like to hear about as I am an independent woman. I found it sad that the men looked down at these women as they ...   Read More

Emily C. (Naples, FL)

A Historical Gem
As a retired teacher of high school American history, I thoroughly enjoyed this historical gem. This is an area of American history with which I was totally unfamiliar, except for the story of Amelia Earhart. Had this book existed 30 years ago when...   Read More

obsessedreader

A Soaring Read!
Keith O'Brien's Fly Girls is, to me, the best non-fiction book of 2018. This detailed account of five brave women who made aviation history is written in a smooth, lively way that keeps the reader involved.I learned an incredible amount, and my ...   Read More

Jana G. (Houston, TX)

Fly Girls
This book was a pleasure to read. The historical significance of women in flight is brought to life in Mr. O'Brien's book. The camaraderie among these women and their willingness to reach greater heights even among difficulty is inspirational. I did ...   Read More

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