The Secrets of Flight: A Novel

  • By Maggie Leffler
  • William Morrow Paperbacks
  • 368 pp.

Intertwined narratives bring the tale of a female WWII pilot to life

In one of its three narratives, Maggie Leffler’s The Secrets of Flight takes the reader to a time in the United States when great changes were in the offing.

Antibiotics, recently discovered, were about to be used widely to cure chronic diseases. Quotas against Jews in educational institutions were soon to lift. And women began to fly planes for the military, though in the face of discrimination, displeasure, and misunderstanding.

To the modern reader, the assumptions and mores of this period are diverting. To wit: Near an airbase in Texas, a handful of off-duty WASPs (as female WWII aviators were called) got themselves arrested on charges of solicitation because they were wearing pants and had no male escorts accompanying them.

Decades after those social changes have settled, 87-year-old Mary Browning is bright, witty, and irreverent, a “little old lady” whose greatest fear is “not having a voice of [her] own.” She struggles with the emptiness of her present-day existence. This widow has for 10 years led a small writing group without penning a single word of her own. She has secrets upon secrets — and no one to tell them to.

Enter Elyse Strickler, a lively 15-year-old who stumbles into the group, which is attended exclusively by elderly people. Elyse decides to join because she longs to save somebody’s life. For a girl of her years, Elyse has a lot to deal with — her father’s bout with cancer; her parents’ separation and impending divorce; her grandmother’s death; her friend’s gallbladder operation. Just as large loom the ordinary pains of growing up — conflicts with her mother, challenging classwork, and a crush on a boy who’s not worth the sacrifices she makes to attract and hold onto him.

Mary is drawn to Elyse because the girl reminds Mary of her own sister, Sarah, long dead of tuberculosis. With Elyse’s encouragement, Mary begins dictating her memoir of the time long ago when her name was Miriam (Miri) Lichtenstein, the year was 1944, and she was a pilot in the Women’s Air Force.

Miri, like Elyse and Mary, struggles with issues of identity and camouflage. How much of her true self can she reveal? How much ought she to hide for the sake of blending in? What claims ought love to have on her?

Each of the novel’s intertwined narratives is compelling, and each of the three voices is individual — even as Leffler skillfully draws the continuity between the youthful Miri of the war years and the elderly Mary of the present.

Leffler does an admirable job of keeping it all comprehensible. Each of the stories introduces characters who are richly drawn, believable, and entertaining. On occasion, though, her use of flashbacks is disorienting. In one instance, Elyse learns, along with the reader, that Mary has been taken to the hospital. This news comes without any further explanation as to the how or the why. Two chapters later, Mary mentions, “The Saturday I got out of the hospital.” It isn’t until later in the chapter that we find out what happened to land Mary in the hospital in the first place. The technique is more confusing than suspenseful.

There are deeply felt passages, especially those dealing with love and with death, and Leffler’s deft handling of dialogue conveys psychologically apt progressions of thought — as, for example, when Miri’s mother rejects out of hand the notion that Miri can become a pilot, but then is brought, in just a page-and-a-half, to insisting that Miri must leave her home in Pittsburgh and go for aviation training in Texas, after all. The development from shock to acceptance is wonderfully drawn, as is the youthful exuberance of Miri and her sister.

Leffler has a way with metaphor and can portray emotion and character in few words: “The way Sol keeps twisting his yarmulke in his hands reminds me of a man wringing out his own heart,” and “Mom stiffened like she’d opened the door for a Fed Ex package and found a Jehovah’s Witness instead.”

Regrettably, the novel relies on a coincidence to resolve its conflicts of secretiveness and identity. The use of coincidence in fiction isn’t a sin — unless that happenstance cannot be swallowed. As Mary tells Elyse, “Far-fetched stories work as long as you can make your reader believe it.” Since there is much of value in this novel, I don’t want to ruin the ending for potential readers. No spoilers here — except to say that, in the end, this reader didn’t believe it.

Marilyn Oser, prize-winning author of the novels Even You and Rivka’s War, has been called “a particularly gifted novelist” by the Midwest Review.

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