|Published by||Random House|
|Format||Paperback; 624 pages|
|Price||Recommended Retail Price £5.99|
When I first learned about the forthcoming release of this book and saw the image of its cover, my immediate reaction was “Oh well. A competition to Spitfire Women of World Word II“. Placed beside each other in a bookstore window these two books would look deceptively similar. Only later, when the actual book arrived in my mail, I realized how misguided I was in my expectations. Carol Gould’s Spitifre Girls is something as rarely seen these days as a piece of World War II aviation fiction. It is a novel about women pilots of the wartime Air Transport Auxiliary, or ATA.
The idea felt exhilarating. The genre of aviation fiction has been on a decline for a long time, Could Carol Gould’s effort bring a breath of fresh air into this category? Read on.
To begin with, Gould hits right on the mark with her choice of subject. The story of the ATA women pilots is fascinating and still raises many intriguing questions. If you are not fully aware of the background, you should know that in the 1940s era, flying with the ATA for Britain’s war effort arguably represented the top of all jobs which a woman could have, with possible exception of becoming a film star or media celebrity – not only in the UK, but in the world. Indeed, women’s successful struggle to be accepted as flying professionals on equal terms with men during a period when aviation still served as a inspiration for the masses had no precedent in history.
This is the origin of the legendary – and, it should be added, highly successful ATA women’s pool. It must be remembered that the journey towards this recognition had been hard and filled with obstacles – men’s prejudice, beaurocratic resistance, bullying, derogatory remarks in the press, problems with finding reliable allies in the world governed by men, families disapproving the deeds of these young women. How did they cope with the adversities? What were they thinking? Were they ever content with their collective achievement, or were they dreaming of going further, to combat flying with the RAF, or post-war jobs in civil aviation?
‘Dear God, Val, you know how desperate these girls are to fly more advanced machines! Here are those men – some barely able to handle one type – allowed to ferry anything, and yet we have learned one hundred different aircraft from back to front, some of us twenty years as instructors. But we are women, and the Ministry says we may not step inside the things.’
‘I think we will be transporting everything by the year’s end.’
Amy sat again, hesitating at the thought of meeting Valerie’s earnest gaze. She could feel the Commanding Officer’s eyes boring through her Second Officer’s uniform.
‘I hate ATA, Val. (…) How can I fit into a girls’ dormitory and be a cog in a giant operation? How can I cope with catty gossip and stupid regulations?’
Valerie leaned back end closed her eyes, her arms now crossed about her neatly tailored jacket.
‘Because there is war,’ she said, measuring her words minutely, ‘women are being allowed to perform a job they have never done before. They were instructors after the Great War, but never before have they been issued uniforms and treated as equals on bases and been granted commissions as Commanding Officers, for Christ’s sake’. She was astonished that Amy could be the one to enrage her so.
Women’s struggle for recognition and freedom to pursuit their own choices in life forms the leading theme of Spitfire Girls. Gould’s indisputable strength is that she tells their story from the perspective of her own sex. The aviation subject provides a framing to the theme, but is seldom allowed to take the first stage. Thus, if you are an aviation buff looking for stories of air combats and bravery in the air, this book is probably not for you. Personally, I don’t think that the lack of “hardcore” aviation content is a disadvantage. On the contrary, I believe that Goul’s choice of writing a novel rather than a documentary fully justifies her focus on people.
Indeed, it can be argued that the title “Spitfire Girls” is a metaphor – the Spitfires (aeroplanes) are not mentioned until bout 2/3 of the book, and then only in equal company of other flying machines which became so familiar to the ATA – Oxfords, Ansons, Couriers, Tiger Months, Lysanders.
Throughout the book, Gould introduces an impressive gallery of characters. Although all of them are fictional, many seem to be based on real people. I found it enjoyable trying to decipher the real-life patterns for Goul’s characters. Of all the many parallel stories and characters, I particularly like the one of Valerie Cobb – in the book, the first head of the Womens’ ATA and a daughter of an MP. Is she a reflection of ATA’s Pauline Gower, and what would be the likes and the differences between the two? Is the book’s German filmmaker Reine Fishtal a personification of Leni Riefenstahl? And, is that the real Lord Beaverbrook that we see in the book? Indeed, Gould seems to be inviting the reader into this kind of play by giving many of her characters names that bring associations, such as Anke Rietsch (Hanna Reitsch?) or Jaqui Chochran (Jackie Chochran?).
Is it all well then? Not entirely. The author places the story in the historic context of World War II and the society of the time (or, strictly speaking, societies – the story in unveiling simultaneously in many places – Britain, United States, Australia, even Poland). In other words, it is about the most dramatic, fascinating period in modern history which should be rather well-known to many. For this reason I wish that Gould used her brush a little more gently when painting the picture of the era. As it is, many backdrop events in the book are sketched up with rather heavy brushstrokes and the results for a history-aware reader may appear, regrettably, rather questionable. I can’t help feeling that in the pursuit of keeping up the tension, Gould went beyond the realms of an acceptable artistic license, freely inventing events that are not very believable.
I’m talking about Britain of 1937, full year before Munich, being described as suffering severe food shortages. Or the evocative pre-war intelligence plot between the Americans, Germans and the British to come over the film showing, of all things, the disaster of the Hindenburg airship in Lakehurst. Jews being locked up in a ghetto in pre-war Warsaw. Gestapo-like agents shooting to overflying civilian aircraft in the same location, anno 1937. Or the existence of fully-fledged Women’s Air Force in Poland. There is also an Atlantic crossing in an Oxford, or oxygen masks for passengers in a 1940 transport aircraft. Or the chapter where an Austrian Jewish refugee simply walks past all the guards at Hatfield aerodrome and takes off in a Fairey Fulmar, no questions being asked. Or one Polish aviatrix bribing “everyone” in the German-occupied Poland to come over a Heinkel (111?) transport and then flying it non-stop (sic) from Bucharest to Prestwick with Jewish refugees onboard. Then, after landing, she simply checks in a local hotel. Right in the middle of the Battle of Britain!
Frankly, I found many of these stories a bit too fantastic. Unfortunately, they are too many to be ignored, and this has a significant effect on my perception of the book as a whole. It may be argued that so many decades have passed since the World War II that an extra bit of Hollywood-inspired artistic license doesn’t do any harm. But it could also be something else, namely that these extravagant stories hint about insufficient research on part of the author. And it is the latter alternative that bothers me. It prevents me from relaxing with the book and feeling that I’m learning something true about the times and the people.
Summarizing, if you are already interested in aviation or World War II, this book is unlikely to form a cornerstone of your library of aviation fiction. I’d rather recommend it as a casual read. In this case, just take the story for what it is – a highly entertaining piece of fiction – and enjoy the ride.
Review book kindly provided by the publisher