It’s 1944 and everyone is doing their part for the war effort. While her mother and sister roll bandages for the Red Cross, 18-year-old Bernadette “Byrd” Thompson sneaks out of their poor, small-town Iowa home and hops a train to Sweetwater, Texas. In Skies Over Sweetwater, an absorbing coming-of-age novel by Julia Moberg, the insecure teen joins the elite Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) training program at Avenger Field.
By donning oversized men’s overalls (aka “zoot suits”), suffering through morning calisthenics, studying meteorology and Morse code, and learning to fly trainers, utility planes, bombers and other aircraft, the WASPs free up men for combat overseas. Byrd is eager to share these exhilarating experiences with Sadie, a spunky, college-educated Oklahoman; Opal, a Chinatown native who elicits many stares; and even “Miss Peach” Cornelia, the smug socialite from Atlanta. But she’s not ready to divulge what happened eight years ago: her father’s accidental death while performing an aerial dive and her own narrow escape from the broken plane.
Byrd’s passion never wavers, but still harboring guilt and fear over her father’s tragedy, she questions her ability to fly among the nation’s best, especially during the required training dives. When another disastrous event turns into a heroic, life-saving act, the young woman is finally able to prove to her commander, her selfish training partner, the men who scoff at women pilots – and most importantly, to herself – that she can succeed. And when not flying or catching the local rattlesnakes, Byrd just might capture the heart of Lt. Andrews, an instructor with a secret of his own.
From Victory Gardens to butter rations to lines drawn on the back of women’s legs to look like nylon stockings, Moberg includes many details that allow readers to understand Byrd’s time in history. The teen’s struggles and achievements form an inspiring portrayal of America’s first military-trained female pilots, bringing this often forgotten part of history to light and showing that men were not the only ones risking their lives during World War II.
Angela Leeper prefers life on the ground in Wake Forest, North Carolina.