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
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Published:
    Aug 2018, 352 pages

  • Rate this book


Buy This Book

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. Fly Girls opens with the line: "In 1926, there were countless ways to die in an airplane" (xi) and goes on to discuss the many dangers associated with aviation at that time. Why do you think that the author chose this as the opening subject of the book? Why was aviation so dangerous at that time? What did the new aviation industry create or invent in order to prove that flying was safe? Were they successful?
  2. Who are the fly girls and why are they remarkable? Where do each of the women come from and what were their lives like before they began flying? What reasons do these "fly girls" give for wanting to participate in aviation and competitive aviation sporting events?
  3. Consider historical and social context. When and where do the events...
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Ann B. (Kernville, CA)

A well grounded account of women pioneers of the air
Veteran NPR journalist Keith O'Brien succeeds in bringing these female (and feminist) aviation pioneers to life. I very much enjoyed following the arc of narrative that O'Brien constructed using primary and secondary source materials, such as ...   Read More

Write your own review!

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Readalikes

Readalikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked Fly Girls, try these:

  • The Woman's Hour jacket

    The Woman's Hour

    by Elaine Weiss

    Published 2019

    About this book

    The nail-biting climax of one of the greatest political battles in American history: the ratification of the constitutional amendment that granted women the right to vote.

  • Code Girls jacket

    Code Girls

    by Liza Mundy

    Published 2018

    About this book

    "Code Girls reveals a hidden army of female cryptographers, whose work played a crucial role in ending World War II.... Mundy has rescued a piece of forgotten history, and given these American heroes the recognition they deserve." - Nathalia Holt, bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls

Non-members are limited to two results. Become a member
Search Readalikes again
How we choose readalikes
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Let It Bang
    Let It Bang
    by RJ Young
    Every interracial love story is an exercise in complications. R.J. Young and Lizzie Stafford's ...
  • Book Jacket: A Spark of Light
    A Spark of Light
    by Jodi Picoult
    The central premise of A Spark of Light involves a gunman holding hostages within the confines of a ...
  • Book Jacket: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
    An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
    by Hank Green
    As one half of the extremely popular YouTube duo "Vlogbrothers" (the other half being his brother ...
  • Book Jacket: Waiting for Eden
    Waiting for Eden
    by Elliot Ackerman
    Elliot Ackerman's latest novel, Waiting for Eden, follows Marine Eden Malcom as his death ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Unsheltered
by Barbara Kingsolver

A timely novel that explores the human capacity for resiliency and compassion.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Kinship of Secrets
    by Eugenia Kim

    Two sisters grow up bound by family but separated by war; inspired by a true story.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Paris Echo
    by Sebastian Faulks

    A story of resistance, complicity, and an unlikely, transformative friendship.
    Reader Reviews

Who Said...

The library is the temple of learning, and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in history

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

I Ain't O U T F L S

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.