The ground crew was aghast at the idea of a girl flying the broken Lysander.
‘She won’t be strong enough. With the tail set for take-off yon slip of a lass won’t be able to hold the stick hard for’ard enough for landing. Don’t know if anyone could.’
‘Someone landed it here,’ Maddie pointed out. She’d already been given the chit for the job and wanted to leave while she could still see the Pennines. ‘Look, I’ll just set it neutral by hand before I get in. Easy peasy –’
And she gently pushed the tail into place, stood back and dusted her hands on her slacks (navy, with an Air Force blue shirt and navy tunic and cap). The mechanics were still frowning, but they’d stopped shaking their heads. ‘It’ll be a pig to fly,’ Maddie said. ‘I’ll just keep the climb-out and landing nice and long and shallow. Come in fast, 85 knots, and the automatic flaps’ll stay up. It’s not too windy. Should be fine.’
commentary: There’s a slight issue with books like this. If I say ‘I don’t know why it is described as Young Adult’ that sounds as though I’m putting down the idea of YA, and that would be far from my intention. But really, this book is as good, and as compelling, and as adult, as many of the straight or literary novels I have read this year. It is an immensely clever book, and one that lingers in the mind.
It’s about two young women who as they grow up find themselves in the middle of WW2: the first half of the book has one of them, Verity/Queenie/Julia, captured in France: she is in German hands, being interrogated and accused of spying, and she is writing the story of her life as a ‘confession’. She tells of her life, and her friendship with Maddie. The second half of the book looks at Maddie’s version of what happened: Maddie is a working-class girl, obsessed with flying, who joins the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and then moves on to the Air Transport Auxiliary, where she could fly. Verity is part of the Special Operations Executive.
The book gives a great picture of life in Britain in the 1930s, of the class divide, and of the way the war changed things. At the same time it has a thriller-esque plot of spying, secrets and mysteries, and – as must be obvious – two terrific female lead characters. I defy anyone to start reading the book and not get caught up in it: you will certainly end up whizzing through the final sections, and shouting things at the book and the characters and the author.
There are wonderful descriptions in the book, such as this, with Maddie and Verity going out on her motorbike:
But for five minutes Cheshire seemed green and sparkling. Maddie’s granddad owns a bike shop and he got some black market petrol for her specially when I visited. I am putting this down (even though it’s nothing to do with Aircraft Types) because it proves that I know what I’m talking about when I describe what it was like for Maddie to be alone at the top of the world, deafened by the roar of four winds and two cylinders, with all the Cheshire plain and its green fields and red chimneys thrown at her feet like a tartan picnic blanket.I loved this book: I’m sure I will read it again, and I strongly recommend it to anyone, but particularly anyone looking for fabulous, strong female characters.
The top painting is from the War Artists collection at the IWM: it is an oil painting by Charles Ernest Cundall and shows WAAFs working on aircraft.
The black and white photo shows an ATA pilot, Pauline Gower, delivering a plane in 1940.
The colour photo, from 1942, shows a woman pilot in an Avro Anson, the plane Maddie trains on.
The recruiting poster, like the others, is (of course) from the wonderful Imperial War Museum.