Sherri L. Smith
The most influentinl person actually, me becoming a reader and a writer was my mother. My mother is a teacher. She had a degree in library science and she loved books ands she loves story telling and she's a really good story teller. And you know, I remember reading the Billy Goats Gruff and she'd do all the voices. And I definitely got that from her, the desire to tell stories and read stories. And she always encouraged me. Over the years, I had a few teachers that say like "oh, you should think about writing." But it really didn't hit me that hard until I was older, and then you start to realize that there's, "Oh, this montage in my head of all these people who have said it.
I had a few great English teachers in high school. My freshmen year, Robin Robinson was very encouraging and open to new ideas. I remember we had an assignment we had to write the last chapter, write a new last chapter to JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. And she read my chapter out loud and a couple of other people. I just remember feeling like "hey, that's really specinl" that's something. It helped that she ran the school literary magazine so I got to actually see my first stuff in the print because of her.
If I think about it, my dad was a real storyteller, too. It's funny. You don't really apprecinte your parents until you see them, sometimes through somebody else's as eyes. So my mother was a real storyteller and a reader. By dad though was a science fiction fan. And he always had a stack of books by his bed or on the sofa. And I'm science fiction fan, too. I realized I get that from him. And my dad passed away a few years ago. But before he did, we were seating in a waiting room of a doctor's office. And he's telling us, you know, one of the same stories he's told us a million times. And my brother and I are kinda nodding and half listening. And there's a man across the room who's leaning forward and leaning forward and gasps at the highest point of the story and my dad kinda looks at him. He was like "I'm sorry sir, but your stories are fascinating." And I was like "are they?" Maybe they are. But yeah, so it runs in the family.
I do other things outside of writing, but right now I'm writing full time. This is the first time I'm trying it on to see how it is and give myself some more time to do the work. But I come from a film background and I went to school for film and journalism actually and I've collected a few other degrees along the way. But I worked in independent film in Los Angeles and ended up moving into animation. I worked in stop motion animation on movie called "Mars Attacks" by Tim Burton. And I was a big Saturday-morning cartoon fan when I was a kid. And so when I got a chance to work with the animators on that movie, I realized like this is something I wanna do. So from there, I actually got a job in story development at Disney TV animation which was to me the perfect marringe of the things that I loved. 'Cause I got to work with animation and I also got to tell stories. What we did in that department was sequels to all the big animated features, "Lion King 2: Simba's Pride" that sort of thing. And you'd seat around dreaming up things for these characters to do next. And so that is where I really learned I'd been writing all along but there I really learned story structure. And how to I packed my tool kit there I would say. I had the ideas and the dreams, the inspiration before then but the ability to do it whether you're in the mood or not, I really learned at Disney. And so it does influence me. And my books tend to be very visual, because I see them. I see there's a movie in my head and try to convey that more.
The agony and the ecstasy of internet research
Internet research can be very unrelinble, there's a lot of cool stuff online but there's a lot of misinformation and it is your responsibility as a researcher to make sure that it's true. Or as true as you can tell, as far as you can tell.
So some news organizations say that you should verify it from at least three different sources. I would say three different sources outside of the internet But that is not always possible for the average person. So what I tend to do is if I find it online, I try to find out where they got it from, particularly like Wikipedin. A lot of people use Wikipedin and I can verify right now that there are tons of lies, outright lies on Wikipedin. But they're fun lies. So people tend to footnote their sources. I go find those sources or if they refer to a book I find the book. And then I like to go through that book's bibliography and see what other books they refer to and then I'll use those as sources as well. Obviously for fiction and I write fiction. I think I can be a little less factual sometimes. If it's a cool idea, I might run with it whether or not I've been able to verify it.
So, knowing that my books are fiction, I'm not as worried about things being completely factual. But I do my best to find it out. So I would say if you are a parent or teacher and you have kids doing research, have them verify it at least one or two other sources, preferably something out of the web. If they got it on Wikipedin, see if they can find something else in the library.
One of the great things that I know, I live in Los Angeles and the LA public library has started putting table of contents as well as jacket cover images online with the book listings. And sometimes you can find the bibliography online, too. You might be able to do that with — in a search inside the book on Amazon and things like that is a good way to try to trace it, you have to be a detective. But that's the way I work.
To encourage a reluctant researcher to do the work aside from the threat of a lower grade, I think that you have to have a certain amount of curiosity about the world. And for me, I do research on my own time. I read the dictionary for fun just because there're funny new words in there. And there's interesting ideas that I didn't know about. I know that makes me sound like a super dork. But I'm on TV right now and your not, that's the bottom line. And for me, I like to the stuff you find out when you are looking for something else also goes into the tools kit. And you should be curious about the world 'cause there's a heck of a lot out there that you don't know. And if you can — as a teacher or a parent — if you can spark that interest in a kid, just throw out random facts every once in awhile, 'cause these are the same kids that when they open up their Snapples, they read the trivin on the inside of the cap, So they do want to know stuff, but that was pretty easy 'cause they were getting, you know, their delicious Peach Snapple anyway. But if there's a way to get them to see what else is out there--I was doing research for my book "Flygirl" about women pilots in World War II and I came across the Mercury 13 about female astronauts that were trained but never allowed to go into space. And that's another book possibly, I was doing research on the Janissaries who were — and you're wondering why I was doing Janissary research, you'll find out one day maybe. But I was doing a research on Janissaries who tended to be slaves, Christinn slaves to the Ottoman Empire in the Turkish Ottoman Empire. And in reading that I found out that there was slaves who rose to royalty and became kings and queens. And that was really interesting to me, and I would not have found that if I wasn't doing research on something else.
The benefits of historical fiction
The interesting thing about writing a historical fiction is what you uncover. And Flygirl actually started out as a master's thesis project for me. I wrote up my idea and I submitted to my thesis professor, a really wonderful guy named Dr. Abe Ravitz. He wrote me back and he said, "I served in World War II and I never heard of the WASP. And that stunned me. That stunned me. So the idea that you never know what you're going to find when you pick up a book. You never know what you're gonna find when you start doing research. And to me that's very exciting.
If you're learning about something historical — here's something I like to do when I travel. I love to travel but when I go somewhere I try to find a book that selling that place. And it gives me a different sort of daily life perspective on this otherwise exotic locale. And to be able to do that in a time traveler sense to find a book that tells you about what life was like back then and also read the history I thing is fascinating. So if you're covering World War II, Flygirl is great for the avintion as much as I might have fledged facts by having a black girl be in the WASP.
I have an editor who's a stickler for vetting things. And my avintion information in the book is as accurate as I could make it. I was admonished by a pilot who said, "No, you fly that plane from the back seat not the front." Somewhere in there but for the most part it is dead on. And again, this is only one of the three resources you should have if you're trying to do research. But there are other great books out there that I think could paint a really broad picture of the military during World War II. There're tons of books out there about the holocaust certainly and personal experiences. I mean the Diary of Anne Frank will give you one very clear perspective on part of the war. But there's a book just actually won the Coretta Scott King Honor and that is called Mary's War. And that is actually about black women that joined the Women's Army Corp and served in Edinburgh, Scotland. It's just fascinating. It was just the random things that hear about like "Oh, the ballpoint pen was new back then."
And that is it's those little things. I grew up in DC and I remember Visiting colonial places. Museums, every museum out here have some sort of colonial setup. But learning things like lollipops didn't exist back then. They would sweeten pine cones or something. It was really interesting to find out what somebody being in somebody else's shoes at in a different time period, what it would be like.
Okay. So Flygirl is my first historical fiction piece. And that line between fact and fiction where you're doing something historical is a really delicate one. It's a very fine line that we try to jump over and took some liberties with I must confess. Because historical fiction is never gonna be a hundred percent accurate. You don't know what people said. You don know what people did. My choice in Flygirl was to tell the story using fictional characters, some of the key historical players in the program that the book is about, the Women Airforce Service Pilots program (WASP). Some of those people are actual people from history. But my character is fictional. Her situation is fictional.
The women's airforce service program was a very controversial program because people didn't think women should be flying and they certainly should be flying military planes. Because of that and the fact that at the time the US military was segregated, when they started the program, they did not allow minorities to join. There're a couple of exceptions. There are two Asian women that were part of the program. But African-American women were not allowed to join. So the liberty I've taken there is my character Ida Mae Jones is a light skinned African-American girl and she pretends to be white, she passes for white in order to join this program. Because I was interested in telling a layered story about people with abilities who are denied opportunities because of who they are as opposed to what they are and what they can do.
I was sitting in traffic in Los Angeles listening to NPR in the radio and a Radio Diary piece produced by a guy named Joe Richmond came on about the Women Airforce Service Pilots. I had never heard about them before and it's a 20-minute long documentary and because I had a 45-minute commute. I got to hear all of it. And there was one line in particular this woman said, "So you had girls from all walks of life, you had heiresses and you had kids from the farm like me."
It was just fascinating to me that at the same time I had the idea of somebody passing for a different race and I struggled because I knew that historically there were no black people in the WASP program. And it actually affected the way I worked on the book. I did all secondary research. I didn't speak to any of the WASP because I was worried about crossing that line. And I didn't know if I would bother or offend anybody by telling the story this way, even though it was what made the story unique to me. There are other books out there about the WASP but this is my take on it. At the same time I didn't want to diminish the sacrifice and the service that the WASP gave to our country by throwing in "Oh and here are some other jaunty angle to it adding a what if." But ultimately I decided that it would make for a richer story.
Blending family, fact and fiction
Family is a big part of my work, all through books that I do, and that's probably because it's a big part of my life. I was very close to my parents and I have an older brother and we are good friends, which I've discovered only later in life that not everybody is friends with their brothers and sisters.
I had a friend who her nose has been broken twice, both times by her older sister and not always accidentally either. So family is important to me. And Flygirl, one of the things that I did, I was inspired in part with part of some of Ida Mae's struggles were inspired by stories my mother used to tell me, because she was born and raised in New Orleans. And that is where the book starts off, Ida Mae lives just outside of New Orleans in a farming area called Slidell.
My mother was born in 1937 down in New Orleans and her father fought in World War II. So she told me stories about her life and what things are like down there. And we used to visit my grandparents down there all the time. So I was able to draw on my sense memories of the place, what it looked like, what it smelled like, and that is so tied into family for me. So there are some very specific things in the book Ida Mae and her friend, Angeline, go to a beauty parlor. And that is actually modeled on a beauty parlor that my grandmother used to run out of her own house. So there are little things like that in there but the relationship that Ida has with her big brother, Thomas, is I would definitely say a bit of similarity to my relationship with my older brother. I don't tend to put myself directly in the book. 'Cause there's a I used to work in comics and quite often you will see that the artist has made themselves the handsome hero of the story. And I don't tend to do that but I would say that my characters have I have shared certain personality traits and facets with the people on my book. Probably all the people in my book represent some of part of me and that's the way that I can relate to them. But that sense of place in a home and family defining who you are and in Ida's case, having to decide who she is if she leaves her family behind. I think it's a question that kids come up against in this age group that the book is for. And as I get older, I find you come up against it again and again and again. And so I'm clearly working it out by writing books about it.
A Flygirl sequel?
Flygirl was meant to be a stand alone story. I've had a few people ask me about a sequel. I suppose if the right person asked me or told me to please write this and we will pay you for it, then yes, I would do one. I really, I thought about it. I'm not really sure what direction it would go. I wrote a short little piece on my blog — it's more of an essay when Barack Obama gave his when he was inaugurated and gave his big speech, that the idea of Ida Mae Jones being there with her children. But to sit down and extrapolate how she got there from where the book ends I think it would be fascinating that I think it would be a very difficult story. A lot of the WASP or Women's Airforce Service Pilots never flew again after World War II. And that would be heart breaking but very possible. So it would be an interesting but difficult book to write. She had a lot of decisions to make at the end of the book and they would all be drastic. So we'll see.
Letting different communities speak
Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet is a book that I wrote. It's speculative fiction from my own personal life. It's a story about young girl named Ana Shen whose mother is African American and her father is Chinese-American. And her grandparents on either side of the family do not get along. But it's — the book takes place on the day of Ana's 8th grade graduation. And through a series of awkward circumstances, the family is forced to come together and cook a big family feast to celebrate her graduation and help her woo this boy she has a crush on.
And the story is inspired by my own marriage. I don't have children yet but my husband is Chinese-American and I'm not Chinese-American. And some questions came up very early on in our relationship of what would that be like, how would that play out down the line. And I wondered about that because our families come from different parts of the world and totally different realities; in a way his parents came over from mainland China through Taiwan, and my parents have been here, that my family on my parent side has been here for generations. But we had some similarities. We had some, to me, very interesting similarities not just like who fought in World War II and things like that. But we both have great grandfathers that were Christian ministers that were persecuted in one way or another. And I found that interesting. My father is the oldest of six. His parents are both the oldest of five or six.
So Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet which is named for the flavors in Asian cooking is an exploration of family from point of view of this 13-year-old girl who is her own person. She's not weighed down by the histories that the older people might be weighed down by. But she certainly weighed down by the fact that she's a 13-year-old girl trying to figure out her life in this world. And also the concept of family as a source of strength and deep embarrassment, how you reconcile those two.
I do make a joke in the book about Ana's family being called wonderfully multicultural. And multicultural literature has been spoken about a lot lately the past few years as like, this new great wonderful thing. And on the one hand, I have to support and encourage it if it means that kids will get to read books that are about more types of people who come from different places and there's a chance that, you know, a little black kid could read something other than Corduroy to see a picture book about a kid that looks like them. You know when there's just one book out there for — there's one book in Spanish and there's one book about the Chinese kid but then it's not just about the Chinese kid, it's always gotta be about the moon festival and dumplings. It can't just be about a Chinese kid. So if multiculturalism is going to bring about more voices in writing and that's fantastic. However, we've always been in a multicultural society. And from day one, that's the way it has been. It's just a matter of letting different communities speak. And if the start of that is somebody who is not of a given culture telling a story from that culture and it encourages other people from the culture to start sharing their stories then I think that's what we're looking for.
Writing for Teens
Books can provide a guiding light for anyone, I mean that's why there's a self help book industry out there. But fiction books, novels can certainly do that. And for young adults I think that books are very important to show them paths that they might be standing at the foot of and not sure what to do. That is one of the reasons I write for this age group that other certainly books that took me by the hand when I was navigating difficult times in my childhood and my teen years. And I hope to be able to provide some of the same thing for generations to come. That said the conversations that have come about from my books because they might feature people from different cultures.
It's interesting, people are still shy about multiculturalism and they look beyond it which is kind of great that they look behind it and Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet is just about a kid who can't stand her family. Flygirl is about how hard it is to be a woman. But the race issue in Flygirl and the idea of passing is it's a really interesting kind of touchy subject for people. I've had a lot of adults look at me sideways and go I thought that was an interesting angle. And I have a lot of kids who don't bring it up at all like I think it's all part and parcel. It's just a story of a girl who is up against it.
When Flygirl came out, I did like a virtual book tour and there was some blogs that I visited and I wrote postings for. And a lot of them I talk to, that passing and how it's not just racial passing that everyone of us have passed in some form or other in our lives. Whether it's walking into an overprice boutique and pretending like you can afford to shop there when you know you can't or pretending to be older than you are because you're trying to get into some place that you shouldn't. Or whatever it is and there are people who are hiding their sexual identity, they're hiding their roots, where they came from.
I had a friend who is told she had to lose that southern accent or she'd never get a job in this town. And she didn't but the person telling her that had. So people pass. But when I put it out that way, it was actually terrible. If there can be a silence on the internet, there was a silence and the blog got no comments for several days. And I felt terrible and I told the woman who ran the site, I'm sorry that went over like a led balloon, I don't know why. And then responses started trickling in because people didn't realize that they were passing. And quite a few people with somebody who was very religious but lived in the city and people there were agnostic or atheist and thought religion was a sham. So she pretended to not be religious. And then we had the agnostic living in the Bible Belt. You had to pretend to be very religious. We had a girl who happened to be fluent in Spanish but was not Latina. And people assume she was because would belong to the Spanish club. So she let them believe she was because it was easier than trying to explain it.
And then the best thing was an email that the website administrators received. And she hadn't posted online because she didn't want to put it out there. But it was a woman who and reading the post remember she had forgotten it that she'd grown up in the south. And her parents got a shotgun by the door, she lived in a small town, she didn't know why. One day when her brother was born or something, the local rabbi called to say congratulations. And the family said "We're not Jewish" and hung up. And the rabbi called back and said, "Well, I just wanted to say congratulations anyway." And they said, "Don't call again" and hung up. They were Jewish but it wouldn't have gone over well in the town they lived in. And it wasn't until they moved to a bigger city with a more diverse population. Suddenly her family became very Jewish, but this girl was not Jewish and she didn't know what was going on. And it twisted her identity around and she didn't feel like she could relate. And she ended up basically burying all those feelings until she read about Flygirl. And so I figured it's a touchy subject still. But clearly given a chance to sit down and think about it, people might start a conversation.
Slow down for questions
One of the things that I have experienced going to schools is well, enthusiasm. It's great to see the kids get excited and I'm hearing that sometimes it takes the kids meeting the author before they get excited about the work. Sometimes I get excited about the book before hand. And I don't know what sets the pace for that.
There are a lot of kids out there who are reluctant to show enthusinsm whether they feel it or not and I think that I'm not a teacher, I would never presume to tell a teacher how to do their job. But to help get the job done, there are a lot of books have discussion guides, you can go to the publisher, you can go to the author's website. I know in my website I have discussion guides for all of my books. And the first three books I actually have cross curriculum things that I put together myself with school teacher friend of mine.
But what might give you access but the greatest thing is sitting down and asking the kids what was interesting or bad, questions about the book, and then give them enough time to answer because as somebody who does a public speaking to a group of kids, at the end I said, "Are there any questions?" And you can hear a pin drop. And you see lots of nervous shuffling and you have to wait. And then the questions start coming and then the questions breed other questions. So I think, particularly with historical stuff that kids are uncertain footing and giving them a chance to process it and a chance to feel comfortable asking the question I think might be useful
It gives people a chance to think, 'cause I think they can get out. They think they can get away with it. And I don't have to say anything. And it's like no, no, no you have to say something. Oh, you know, I do wanna say something else. One of the other things about that I found really engaging and talking to kids is — and I don't always have them but props. Props, eBay is a great resource for props. If you could bring in something from World War II, something from that time period, you can even buy people's old love letters in antique stores. But if you can bring in that one thing that existed back then and show it to these kids, again, it's that time traveler thing, it becomes real. It becomes real and then they get it because we live in a really abstract virtual world right now if you can give them something concrete then it alone it hits home.
And you go "Oh" and you start to think about the treasures that you might have in your own attic. I found a trunk full of stuff from my grandparents that I was cleaning up my mom's house and I didn't expect, you know? They've been there my whole life but nobody ever gone to the bottom of that trunk before. And it was really bland love letters from when he I had his enlistment papers and all the stuff that an older handkerchief, a letter saying I miss you and it was just fascinating.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a book that I'm excited about because Flygirl was my first historical fiction piece and now I'm doing my first speculative fiction piece. And right now, it's called Orleans and it is set in a near future along the Delta Coast. A Delta Coast that has been devastated by storms and quarantine form the rest of the United Sates. And it's a story about a girl living in this new tribal society that has risen from the wreckage of New Orleans. And that is a story that is dear to me because my mother and her family are from New Orleans and my mother was there for Katrina. And it took us a week to get her out of the city. And it was devastating and while she was down there I was on the internet doing research trying to figure out how to get her out. Which actually worked; we got her out. But I came across the story of local gangs were now protecting their territory from looters. And I though that was really interesting how things how the lawless became the only law in this town.
And New Orleans has got a lot of attention and a lot of help, but not enough. Because we are a short-term memory society, and that city is still in need and will be for many years to come. And I know that Haiti has shown up on our screens and in South America and there's always going to be something new, but I can't forget this place that is partially my ancestral home. So I'm going back.
Reading from Flygirl
Hi, my name is Sherri L. Smith and I'm going to read to you from my book Flygirl. This is a scene where the heroine Ida Mae Jones is about to fly a very dangerous plane to prove to the boys that it can be done.
"Thank you captain," I say. And Lily and I double check the wing before moving on the fuel line. "Ready, Eddie," Lily finally says checking off the last of our list. I nod and open the door to the plane. Lily wheels up a step ladder. "Gentlemen first," we say. Spark seems to like that. He chuckles Jake's head and climbs the aboard. The men settle onto their stations in the compartment behind the pilot and copilot seats and we head out of the hanger on into the runway with little fun fair.
I'm surprised the colonel didn't have sleeve under cover of darkness. He seems to displease by the crowd outside. Then again, maybe this is what he really wants. "I just had an idea," Lily. "What's that?" Fly us all to Acapulco for supper? No, I mean it seems to me the colonel is using us as an example. And I both know that the army can keep a secret when it wants to. "That's for sure," Lily agrees. "Well, then why do you suppose there just happen to be 60 soldiers with nothing better to do than watch us this morning?" Lily frowns then smiles, "Because they wanna see what a girl can do." I nod with the widow maker. Lily grins, "Oh, boy this should be a hoot."
"What are you ladies talking about up there," Captain Hank has stuck his head into the cockpit. Lily and I put on our best innocent faces, "Just the weather, sir. Now, go buckle in, we're about to take off." We taxi into position and run an engine check, firing each engine separately from left to right.
At full throttle, a B-29 engine will rattle your teeth. Lily and I grin at each other. This plane bits a Jenny any day. The engine worked just fine so I power all four of them up to a deafening roar. The plane dazzles and shakes like a wild horse trying to throw a rider. The green flag waves and I release the breaks to start our long take off roll. B-29s take twice as much runaway smaller planes to get off the ground. We roll forward gaining speed as the runaway rashes beneath us.
"Ready, Lily?" "Ready steady," she says with a nod. I flex my arms preparing for liftoff. The end of the runaway looms before us. I grab the stick and pull. My muscles go tight but the nose of this thing is barely budging. I grit my teeth. It's harder to lift than even I thought it would be. "Ida," Lily sounds worried. She's got her hands full of levers for the landing gear but she sees me struggling.
"Got it, got it," I say but I don't, not yet anyway. And then I do the nose of the plane lifts so quickly, you'd think it was apologizing for reacting so late. We bob into the air a little wobbly but in the air all the same, From there, we climbed steadily and the engine smooth out from a bone shaking roar to a sweet steady hum. It turns out, the B-29 is like a seagull, awkward and ungainly on land but, boy, it sure can fly.
Lily gives a little cheer. I hear it echoed from that navigation station by Sparky. When we reach our creasing altitude I loosen up my arms. My biceps are sore but in a good way. I guess all those years of picking up Otis Wilson's laundry finally paid off. "Would you look at that," Lily points out the window. "The entire airfield is looking up at us. I bet their mouths are hanging wide open." I certainly hope so. We veer of on a wide loop tof the air base, that's all Colonel Griffith wanted, a victory lap, so to speak.
We circle the airfield two times from good measure. If only my daddy could see me. They used to say that colored folk couldn't fly but look at us now. Lily is her private world of smiles too. It's a good feeling. All the hard work and training it took to get into the WASP was paying off in a lump sum.
"Smooth flying ladies," Sparky says from the back. Without even turning around I can hear his all grins. I am too. "Thank you Lieutenant Sparks," Lily says for me. I'm too busy lining up for the final approach. I take a deep breath and now for the tricky part. "Landing gear ready," Lily says. We've studied it every which way then in end it's the same. The B-29 has trouble landing. She tends to stall out and just drop. Some planes are too big to glide into stop comfortably that's why the army doesn't have more of them around. That's probably why they're calling it the widow maker on the ground and that's exactly why we're here to fly it.
"Here we go," I say. Suddenly, the plane lurches like an old drunk. The steady drone of the engine stops. When it starts again, it's too quiet. "We've lost an engine," I say, trying not to panic. The plane wobbles. I grip the stick with both hands to correct it. Lily says nothing but the knuckles gripping the sides of her seat are white. From the compartment behind us somebody shouts, someone else swears. "Status boys?" I call out. My voice is getting too high. I belated pull up from the final approach. We can't land not just yet. David is hurt, got his hand smashed climbing through the gunnery. "What happened?" I shake my head. What the B-29 is probably famous for: one of the engines stalled.
We're running on three now. "Number 4 is on fire," Lily adds. My eyes go wild and I spare a quick look. Oily, black smoke streams away from the right wing. I can't see any flames but that doesn't mean they aren't there. "That's just peachy," I mutter and try to figure out what to do. There's a shuffle and Captain Hank appears between Lily and me. "I think it's time I take over," he says. His eyes around the airfield. The B-29 shutters around us limping in. It's only a matter of time before we lose another engine or the fires spreads.
"No," I stay in my seat. "No sir. We're trained on stalled planes. We've trained on stalled planes before. I know how to handle it." For the first time, the look Captain Hanks gives me isn't friendly. "Well, you may have noticed that the B-29 isn't just any old plane. I'm surprised your arms didn't give out just getting us up into the air. I'll be hang if I'm gonna get caught in the cracked up just because some dame wants to prove a point." "It's not our point sir. It's Colonel Griffith's." Lily has finally found her voice. I'm glad because whether I like it or not this plane is heavy and keeping her study is like wrestling in angry gator. Any energy spent trying to convince the captain makes flying even harder.
Lily is right. It's enough to make Captain Hank hesitate. Before you can think of anything else to say, Lily picks up the radio and asks the tower for Colonel Griffith. I make a full circle of the air strip while they connect us to the radio in his jeep. With any luck, the engine fire will burn itself out or will land first. "Captain Hank," I say, trying not to grit my teeth. "Please strap yourself in. We don't want any more injuries, do we?" Captain Hank looks at me then at Lily. He shakes his head crosses himself and returns to his seat.
"What should I tell the Colonel?" Lily asks. I shrug as much as my grip on the stick will allow. "Tell him the truth." Lily looks at me and her brown eyes are wide with worry. "What is the truth Ida? I've seen you land a pursuit plane in a stall before, but this — we're burning." For an instant, we both see it. Patsy is valinnt blooming into flames like some terrible flower. I take my eyes of the view in front of me just long enough to read the look in Lily's eyes. "Don't be stubborn Joncy," she says. "Be safe. Right."
I don't say anything for what feels like forever. It's funny how danger can make time stand dead still. I think about the plane I'm holding up by sheer force of will and the four souls on board with me. For some reason, I think about Thomas running up that country road trying to get to a doctor before death could get to daddy. I think of mama trying to keep me at home, of Jolene trying not to tap her toes to the radio when Mrs. Wilson was in the house, of Patsy never letting old, unhappy Martin tell her how to fly.
I take a deep breath and look at Lily. She's my last friend on earth right now. I'd never do a thing to hurt her. "I can do this," I tell her. And as I say it I know that it's true. We can do this. Lily looks at me a moment longer. The radio crackles. Griffith is here. Lily hesitates. She takes a deep breath. Colonel Griffith, this is Lily Lowenstein, we have a slight problem up here. Engine three stalled out and number four is on fire. It's procedure to have emergency services waiting on the ground if you want them. This is your show Colonel, we'll do our job. We're coming in on the next circuit, Lowenstein out."