Fly Past: Writing Brings the Sacrifices & Dreams of the Past to Life
An elderly woman holding on to a secret from her past, one that leaves behind a trail of pain and regret — that was the premise swirling through Maggie Leffler’s mind before she fleshed out The Secrets of Flight (William Morrow, 2016), a novel about one woman’s life-changing experience as a member of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
Leffler’s imagination was triggered, she says, by seeing a 1940s photo of women pilots wearing flight jackets and being awarded gold medals. In researching this book, Leffler sought out surviving WASP members; it was a fortuitous happenstance to have found Florence Shutsy Reynolds, who became her muse, inspiration and a fabulous resource.
Leffler’s compelling and witty third novel is told from three perspectives: Mary Browning at age 87; Browning’s younger self, Miri Lichtenstein, at age 20; and 15-year-old Elyse, a confused teen grappling with her own familial and personal issues.
Mary Browning is an elderly widow who leads a writing group. While she can be counted on to give critiques, she has yet to share her own stories. When Elyse joins the predominantly senior citizen group, Mary feels drawn to her and hires the girl to type the riveting story of Miri Lichtenstein, a young Jewish girl who defies convention by joining the WASPs at the dawn of World War II. Miri loves the sky and the freedom it offers, but when faced with an impossible choice — love or family — the flight path of her life is irrevocably altered.
With a part-time medical practice and full-time mothering responsibilities, one may wonder how Leffler found the time to write such an intricately layered novel. Where others may drown in the current of an exceedingly busy life, for Leffler, writing is her lifeline. “I’ve really always tried to be able to do both. I just can’t not be writing, so I do write a lot at night, and I just try to carve out the time on the weekends. It’s hard, but when the story is in my head, I have to get it down somehow,” she explains.
Leffler was able to call upon her medical knowledge in several hospital scenes, but how did a woman who grew up in the Christian faith, whose sister is a reverend, manage to write such an authentic portrait of Jewish characters who follow Jewish traditions?
As it turns out, it was pretty personal. When she was in her 40s, Leffler’s mother discovered that she had Jewish roots. “I was inspired by learning that piece of my family heritage and my curiosity about why someone would keep a secret from her own family, what kind of fear she might have,” says Leffler.
During the research phase of the book, Leffler’s sister provided her with materials that enabled her to study Jewish traditions, supplementing those with even more reading. Though seemingly fundamental to the storyline, Leffler did not originally intend to incorporate Jewish characters and themes into the story.
“I set up to write a story about a WASP, but I also thought that this was an opportunity for a character to make a big break from her family; to follow her dream and to try something new.” She continues, “I thought it would be interesting if she had that backstory as a catalyst for her break with her family.”
Perhaps this resonated in particular with this Pittsburgh-based reader, but Leffler deftly weaves the landscape of present-day and historical Pittsburgh, evoking its roots as a city smoky from its constantly churning steel mills.
In addition to the themes of forgiveness, guilt and sacrifice, Leffler notes familial themes: “a search for identity and accepting who you truly are. I love writing about families and the idea of what makes a family.” The result is an ambitious, witty novel that has the ability to produce laughter on one page, tears the next. “I’m always happy to stir up both emotions in a reader,” Leffler says.
About the contributor: Hilary Daninhirsch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Historical Novels Review. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, two redheaded daughters, and a dog of undetermined breed.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 77, August 2016