Jo’s Pick of the Week: The Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

I admit I am a bit of a chicken. I marvel at people who do scary things I never dream of doing. Bungie jumping. Going into space. Flying an airplane. It’s amazing I’m the daughter of a man who trained pilots how to fly in World War II.

The beauty of books is that you can live vicariously through their daring characters. In Maggie Shipstead’s glorious new novel, The Great Circle, I experienced what it was like to be a pilot in the early, glory days when aviation was new and sometimes dangerous. This sweeping saga of Marian’s life takes readers to Alaska, Hawaii, England and the Arctic.

Marian Graves knows as a teenager that she must fly airplanes after she sees a barnstormer land in her small Montana town in 1927. It coincidentally happens on the same day Charles Lindbergh makes his historic flight across the Atlantic. Shipstead’s spunky heroine will do anything to achieve her dream, from driving illegal moonshine to raise money for lessons, to marrying a man she doesn’t really love to get access to an airplane.

Once Marian learns to be a pilot, she refuses to conform to the expected roles of wife and mother. She wants to use her flight skills, and eventually learns to be a bush pilot in Alaska under dangerous weather conditions. When the United States enters World War II, Marian joins the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) program, and helps taxi planes from one destination to another. Along the way, she meets real-life female pilots who broke aviation records while enduring discrimination and sexism. “No flying during your menstrual period, as well as three days before and three days after. It’s regulation,” one commander tells Marian and other pilots, while they secretly roll their eyes.

“I’m told girls dream of being wives, but wifedom seems an awful lot like defeat dressed up as victory. We’re celebrated for marrying, but after that we must cede all territory and answer to a new authority like a vanquished nation.”

Marian Graves

After the war, Marian is determined to circumnavigate the globe from pole to pole. Her plane eventually disappears, and her flight diary is found buried in the Arctic ice. Readers get to go along for the intense, sometimes terrifying ride. Despite our summer heat, I often shivered during these scenes, a testament to Shipstead’s descriptive prose.

The large cast of supporting characters are equally well-developed and complex. Marian’s sensitive twin brother, Jamie, becomes a gifted artist and is recruited during World War II to paint what he sees while with the Navy. A century later, young actress Hadley Baxter is hired to play Marian in a movie, finding that her own life has similarities with the pilot. Hadley is determined to learn more about the woman she is portraying, beyond reading Marian’s flight diary from her around-the-globe adventure.

Shipstead’s impressive research pays off. The Great Circle is peppered with historical people and events, showing that Amelia Earhart wasn’t the only female pilot making aviation records. At about 600 pages, this big, bold story will appeal to historical fiction fans who enjoy strong, determined characters who go after their dreams.

Women’s Air Force Service Pilots on duty.

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