Monday, August 29, 2011

Fearless by Erin O'Reilly

Book:  Fearless
Author:  Erin O’Reilly
Publisher:  Affinity E-Book Press

My love and adoration for the tough and chewy butch with a gun is well documented throughout the many reviews I’ve written.  However, few know of my secret fascination with (and warm tinglies generated by) the fun, fabulous, and fearless aviatrices of the last century. 

I’d put a fair sum of money on the table that it would surprise a few fiercely independent feminists and much of Hollywood to learn that the annals of aviation history are littered with the ballsy and unrepentant accomplishments of amazing women not named Amelia Earhart.

Ever hear of Baronness Raymonde de Laroche?  What about Harriet Quimby, Ruth Law, Bessie Coleman, Adrienne Bolland, Anesia Pinkeiro Machado, Tadashi Hyodo, or Millicent Bryant?  How about Marga von Etzdorf, Amy Johnson, Bobbi Trout, Elinor Smith, Ruthy Tu, or Beryl Markham?  Surely the names of Jackie Cochran, Nancy Harkness Love, Marina Raskova, Melitta Schiller, Jerrie Cobb, Janey Hart, and Pauline Gower inspire images of unflinching courage and in-your-face altitude attitude.

They do, right?  You learned all about them in your Women’s Studies classes?  Maybe even did a term paper on how Jackie Cochran almost single-handedly delayed the entry of American women in space for almost twenty-five years due to sheer hubris? 

Authors such as Sarah Bryn Rickman, Giles Whittell, and Stephanie Nolan have offered up eye-opening, insightful and sometimes shocking real-life accounts of women pilots in the books Nancy Love and the WASP Ferry Pilots of World War II, Spitfire Women of World War II, and Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race.  And, late last year, Lynne Ames released one of the very best books of 2010, Eyes on the Stars, which beautifully chronicles the adventure, love, loss, and redemption of two heroic American Women Airforce Service Pilots. 

Suffice to say, I like me a tough and chewy aviatrix with a joystick.

That’s why I was thrilled when Affinity E-Books Press sent me a copy of Fearless by Erin O’Reilly.  Fearless tells the story of a group of women flying for a British civilian organization called the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).  As the book begins, we learn the back-stories of our main characters.  Meg O’Brien is a beautiful Irish lass who chooses flying with her Uncle in England over marriage to a pig farmer and a gaggle of kids back home.  Jo Laughlin, a caretaker for her younger sisters, struggles to earn a living as a crop duster and barn stormer and takes the opportunity to go to England and fly for the ATA with her sometimes friend/most times nemesis, Midge Reister.  Sarah Faulkner, dubbed the Flying Debutante, is forced to land in a field in the Australian countryside and meets then liberates Brenda Hiller. Lady Smyth-Armstrong didn’t have to serve her country, in fact, she was encouraged not to, but she followed the bright light of patriotism to the airfields of White Waltham.

The women pilots of the ATA ferry new, repaired, and damaged military aircraft between factories and assembly plants, Maintenance Units, scrap yards, and active service squadrons and airfields.  Oftentimes the planes have no communications, no radar, and no armament, and the women accomplish their mission through sheer will and determination.  Unbeknownst to their fellow flyers, Jo and Sarah are sent on a series of secret missions to fly over advancing German troops to photograph troop levels, positions, and equipment.  During one of these flights, the duo is shot down off the coast of France, and is pursued by German troops until members of the French Resistance rescue them, and eventually return them to England.  

The aviatrices return the same, yet very different.

Any time an author introduces me to a large group of women that are central to a storyline; I immediately begin to get the vapors.  What usually happens is that several women have similar names or descriptions, some have big roles and others just offer up a random bit of context or convenient conversation, and by the third chapter I end up confused and frustrated and contemplating slamming my hand in a car door.  Ms. O’Reilly, however, manages to nimbly and distinctly give voice to at least a dozen women associated with the ATA in addition to assorted family, members of the French Resistance, hospital workers, and blokes associated with the ATA and RAF.  It’s a pleasure to read a character’s name late in the book and know immediately who she is, and why her comments or actions are significant to the storyline.

I also found myself appreciating that Ms. O’Reilly was able to construct a story that featured women from England, Ireland, Australia, USA, and Chile.  The women all had different motivations, as appropriate, for flying for the ATA.  And, they sometimes had a hard time understanding each other.  Brenda, the Aussie, continually confounds her fellow pilots and has to either translate or be translated.  The Chilean pilot speaks little English, and the others speak little Spanish.  One of the Brits is excited about hearing an American accent in person.  Other characters comment on the Southern accent and the Irish brogue.  Beyond that, Sarah speaks French, which helps when she and Jo are on the lam in France.  However, Sarah only understands enough German to know when to run for her life and when to shove a knife into some sorry bastard’s back.  Truly, it is a delightful treat to see the simple concept of communication treated in a very ‘real world’ fashion.

As many good things as there are about Fearless, there is one thing that drives me nuts:  Midge Reister, of the bleach blonde hair, red lipstick, and sensuous body.  Midge’s character is all over the place.  One minute the reader hates her, then the next you feel compassion.  For instance, Midge’s overt attraction annoys the snot out of Jo, but Jo is the one that introduced Midge to the wonderful world of girl-on-girl sex. Jo spurns every future advance of Midge until she thinks she’s going to die, then wonders why Midge is a bit put off.  After a stupid prank, Lady Smythe-Armstrong vouches for Midge with the agreement that Midge stop preying on Bess Porter, but Bess seems to want to offer herself freely to Midge. Shannon Brannigan seems hot for Midge, then beds her, hurts her, and continues to sexually harass her.  I kept waiting for some grand finale between the two, but ultimately what we're given is anti-climactic. And, sad as it is, the thing that ultimately dooms the feisty Midge is her unrequited love for Jo.

All in all, Fearless is a compelling read.  I love the story and remain invested in the characters long after I closed the book; I appreciate Ms. O’Reilly’s ability to weave a history lesson complete with tiny bits of politics into enjoyable and exciting fiction; and, I respect the skill and patience she shows by keeping the storyline focused and direct, even with the large cast of characters. 

I also offer up a hearty fist bump to Ms. O’Reilly for her respectful and honest portrayal of Commander Pauline Gower.

If you’re interested in a love story and adventure that is historically accurate and pays homage to some of the most fierce women our modern society has ever known, then Erin O’Reilly’s Fearless is a book you will want to read.  I’m giving it a 4.8 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.  


  1. Applause, applause. Another wonderful and insightful review Plus, a history lesson. I enjoyed the summary and will certainly add this book to my list. Thanks for the thorough anaysis.

  2. Hi Barrett! Always a pleasure when you stop by. As you can tell, I am happy as a pig in a poke that writers like Erin and Lynn have chosen some of these amazing women as the subjects of their books. The history of these fierce aviatrices is a bounty just waiting to be plucked, peeled, and put into a literary pie by other talented writers. It will be interesting to see if anyone else happens by this particular orchard.

  3. So many heroines and so few stories. Glad Erin and Lynn are bringing them to the fore.