Laura Bailey doesn’t want much. Just a front page byline in her New York City tabloid about something more substantial than the quality of the finger sandwiches at a Ladies Auxiliary luncheon.
Oh, well, maybe it would also be nice to know who her father was. But for that to happen, her mother would need to show a compassionate side — something she hasn’t done in all of Laura’s 22 years living with her in the cramped little apartment they share in The City.
That’s just one of the deceptively subtle backstory threads underlying standout author Theasa Tuohy’s superb new historical novel, Flying Jenny. The book ostensibly is about the heady late 1920s, when the public went crazy every day over barnstorming pilots and their heroic stunts. And, most significantly, it’s about a petite young eighteen-year-old named Jenny Flynn, whose outrageous feat of flying under each of the four Manhattan bridges begins the book.
But look deeper, past the well-written dialogue that captures perfectly the swell lingo of the day. And the expertly rendered scenes detailing early aviators’ seat-of-the-pants flying style. These are real people a reader can care deeply about — they’re never cliched or stereotypical. It takes superb writing skill to skirt the temptation to render some minor characters two dimensional. But Tuohy succeeds, page after page, delivering a fresh narrative that never fails to entertain.
The main source of tension in the story derives from Laura’s headstrong, stubborn drive to prove herself worthy to report the news in an overwhelmingly male newspaper market. And serving as counterpoint is Jenny’s breezy ability to excel effortlessly, executing the most complicated aerobatic maneuvers as well as any man, without comment or fanfare.
This sets up inevitable conflict between the two lead characters, Laura goading Jenny to push past what’s easy, and Jenny genuinely perplexed at Laura’s need to prove herself. That, and Laura’s achingly vulnerable naivete about men, which leads predictably to trouble.
The story winds its way through the Midwest, as the troupe performs its aerobatic routines for a breathless public, and a slowly simmering subplot involving Laura’s father gains momentum toward a climactic confrontation in which many things are revealed.
We give Flying Jenny five plus stars for its ambitious themes and flawless writing. We seldom see such superb storytelling skills among the dry, dusty tomes that make up so much of the historical fiction genre. Flying Jenny goes well beyond the norm and delivers a spectacular summertime read..