Leaving Earth

Leaving Earth

by Helen Humphreys

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In 1933, two women aviators try for the longest flight-endurance record while, in Toronto below, war looms.Leaving Earth was Helen Humphreys's debut, and it brought the beauty of her poetry into the story of two women's love of flight and dream to excel, even if it took all their courage and strength and even their lives. Novice flyer Willa joins Grace, heroine of


In 1933, two women aviators try for the longest flight-endurance record while, in Toronto below, war looms.Leaving Earth was Helen Humphreys's debut, and it brought the beauty of her poetry into the story of two women's love of flight and dream to excel, even if it took all their courage and strength and even their lives. Novice flyer Willa joins Grace, heroine of the skies, in what becomes an intimate journey of friendship. Yet the clouds that gather above are echoed by lurking dangers below for Maddy, a young fan of Grace's, and her Jewish mother and uncle. Anti-Semitism is spreading. Maddy's mother, a true fortune-teller, is beat up by thugs, and the swirl of events reverberates on earth and sky.

Editorial Reviews

David Willis McCullough
Helen Humphreys writes remarkably spare, uncluttered prose; she has a great knack for evoking unspoken love and finding stark beauty in matters as diverse as the sight of a burning ship at night or the creation of a silent language. -- New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Toronto in 1933 provides the setting for this captivating novel about two aviatrixes who attempt to set a new world endurance record by flying 25 days non-stop, circling the city in the open cockpit of their Moth biplane. Veteran barnstormer 'Air Ace' Grace O'Gorman chooses novice Willa Briggs as a last-minute replacement for her ailing co-pilot. As days pass, mechanical failures, nasty weather and chronic fatigue threaten to curtail the flight, while the two pilots, hoarse from yelling over the roar of the wind, become close friends, communicating through sign and touch. Meanwhile, in a parallel earthbound plot, young Maddy Stewart, who idolizes Air Ace Grace, struggles to maintain her equilibrium when her Jewish mother, a carnival fortune-teller, becomes the target of a Nazi-inspired hate group. The two plots intersect when Maddy pulls the fliers from their beached aircraft. Inspired by an actual event that occurred in the skies over Miami, Florida, Humphreys has captured the courage and commitment of aviation's unsung pioneers, the sights and sounds of earth and sky and the somber mood of 1930s Toronto, all with a precise lyricism that amply demonstrates her talent as a poet.
Library Journal
During the Depression, two women pilot a plane in circles above Toronto, trying to break a record by staying aloft 25 days without landing. The effects on the women and on one little girl following them from below are beautifully detailed here, winning praise from major publications from the New York Times to the Washington Post. "An impressive debut," concluded LJ's reviewer. (LJ 9/1/98)
Kirkus Reviews
The story of two women pilots who try, in August 1933, to break a record by staying aloft for 25 days in a plane over Toronto. A novel with plenty of period interest but less depth—or height—of psychology and character than could be wished. Famous Grace O'Gorman, known as 'Air Ace Grace,' sets out to break the in-air record now held by her over-the-hill husband Jack—who's not happy to see his wife trying to grab the last record he'll ever set. But Grace pushes ahead, and, when her intended co-pilot breaks her wrist, takes on the younger and less-experienced Willa Briggs (Grace is 33, Willa 23). Up they go in a Moth DH60T, a one-engine biplane with wire struts and fabric skin, to begin 25 days of 10-minute circles. Once they're up, Humphreys offers much that's of considerable interest—how the women refuel in the air, get food (both from a plane flown by the not-quite-to-be-trusted Jack), how they stay clean, go to the bathroom, communicate, keep from falling asleep. But there's unquestionably a sameness about things—and the book turns to one complication and another for its density: on the ground is 12-year-old Maddy Stewart, whose infatuation for the famous flier is almost boundless—even to the point of her imagining Grace to be her real mother, while her actual parents (Jewish mother a fortuneteller, nostalgic Scots father the operator of a merry- go-round) make their way through the homely, money-pinched days of a Depression August—and feel the wrath of early Nazis, members of 'the Swastika Club,' who maraud when it suits them—as it does after Maddy's prize-fighting uncle, Simon Kahane, wins over a boxer who's German. Everything about theairplane—with its 40-gallon gas tank and top speed of 80 mph—is marvelously done, as are the locales of long-ago Toronto, but the tales and characters that keep the rest going just don't hold their altitude.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

THE PLANE SLIPS FROM A spool of blue, stitches a confident loop in the sky. Willa stands by the hangar as the Moth roars above her head, growl of open throttle. The single figure in the rear cockpit waves as the plane flies low over the harbor airfield and then pulls up into a vertical climb. Up and up, the line so straight it could have been drawn with a ruler, could have been a harp string, the plane a note ascending.

    At the top of the climb, the plane stalls, floats for a moment in the flap of blue, and then falls toward earth.


    Willa turns to the man beside her as the plane pulls out of its dive, throttles back, and flies slowly over the hangar and off toward the islands. A scribble of smoke unravels behind it.

    "Your wife?"

    Jack drops his cigarette butt onto the ground, kicks it out with the toe of his boot.

    "Yeah," he says. "That's my wife."

MADDY RUNS ALONG THE sandbar in the shadow of the plane. Noise like gravel rattling in a wooden bowl. The underside of wings, dark blue tube of fuselage.


    Her breath pounds in her chest, in time with her running feet. The lake beside her is a thin blue ribbon wound tight around the trees at the water's edge.

    The plane banks slowly left over the island and Maddy can see the open cockpits, the helmeted flyer hunched forward and leaning into the turn. She stops. The plane gathers above her, passes over. Scrape of wings against the flat sky. She lifts hersmall arms straight up.

    "Grace O'Gorman," she yells into the rasp of engine. "Come back!"

THE CANVAS BAG SWAYS as the fist jabs in, out, in again, right hand over left, gloves a blurin the low light. Sun riding sepia through the dusty windows of the hangar.

    Left hook, thump. Push of exhale.

    When the door opens, the light bunched up behind it rushes through so that Willa, sweat in her eyes, doesn't see the woman until she's crossed the concrete floor and is standing in front of her.

    "Willa Briggs?"

    Willa's hands fall to her sides. Her breath frays in the smooth air. There's the creak of the heavy bag lurching clumsy on its chain.

    "I'm ..."

    "I know who you are," says Willa.

    "Grace O'Gorman"

    They both say it at the same time, the name chiming clear through the steel rafters.

    Grace O'Gorman is dressed in her customary flying outfit: riding breeches and boots, long leather topcoat, leather gloves. Her cloth helmet and goggles are held at her side in her right hand. She's smaller than Willa had thought, but then she's never seen her this close before, just in the cockpit of her plane or standing distant on a stage. The famous aviatrix Grace O'Gorman, skimming the heads of an audience to roll her blue Moth over on its left wing, the spike at the wingtip spearing the white handkerchief spread carefully out on the field. The flutter of surrender in the blue sky.

    "Will you walk with me?" says Grace, and Willa pulls off her boxing gloves, wipes her face on her sleeve, and follows her through the hangar, empty except for a damaged Curtiss biplane.

    Outside the sun is going down over the lake and the islands. The air is warm, smells of gasoline.

    "My husband tells me you live here," says Grace, as they walk across the asphalt apron, away from the hangar and a small cluster of buildings.

    "I can't afford to live anywhere else," says Willa. "I don't have enough students:"

    "You don't get the lady trade?" asks Grace. "The girls whose fathers forbid them the potential charms of a male instructor?"


    "Isn't that how you met Jack?" says Willa.

    Grace turns and smiles at her, and Willa sees the eloquent dip of a wing, a white flash of acquiescence.

    They walk across the apron, between the planes tied down to steel rings in the concrete, ropes lacing the space between wings and earth. Grace O'Gorman's blue Moth sits near Lake Ontario, at the end of the runway.

    "Which way did you come in?" asks Willa.

    "Lakeside," says Grace. "To land into the wind. It's a steady northerly."

    Even so, thinks Willa, it's not enough to be a problem. Grace has put her plane down just feet from the water, meaning she was skipping across the tops of the waves. It would have been so much easier to drop from over the land. It's flat and empty around the little Air Harbour. There's nothing to get in the way.

    "Do you know about my flight?" asks Grace, slowing down as they near her plane.

    "The whole world knows about your flight," says Willa. The great Grace O'Gorman and Sally Tate, circling the Toronto harbor for twenty-five straight days. Refueling in midair. Breaking the endurance record. And landing, on opening day, at the Canadian National Exhibition, to become an exhibit in front of the Automotive Building.

    They have reached Grace's plane. It too seems smaller than Willa remembers. Moth DH6oT. Biplane. Dark blue. Dual open-cockpit trainer. Two sets of controls, two sets of wings. Grace lays her gloved hand on an upper wing. It's a gesture of reassurance and Willa's not sure whom it's meant for, Grace or the plane itself.

    "Sally Tate crashed at an air show yesterday. Broke a wrist. She's had to cancel on me" Grace traces an indistinguishable word onto the shiny fabric of the Moth wing. She watches her hand, doesn't look at Willa. "I saw you fly," she says. "Last year at the meet in Montreal."

    Willa, having no plane of her own, had borrowed one from a member of the Toronto Flying Club. She hadn't placed in the race. Not where it counted, anyway.

    "You were a little clumsy," admits Grace. "But you knew that air is fluid. You rode it like water" She turns and looks at Willa. "You knew what to do with it."

    Willa just remembers the humiliation of coming seventh in a field of eleven women. She was banking too wide on the turns. Too cautious. Afraid of hurting the borrowed plane.

    "I pancaked my landing." She remembers the embarrassing series of flat hops that had made her overshoot the runway.

    "I don't care," says Grace. "I want you to take Sally Tate's place. Fly twenty-five days of circles. With me"

What People are saying about this

David Willis McCullough
David Willis McCullough,The New York Times

A novel so beautiful in its reticinece and insight, featuring characters so seemingly fragile and endangered, that readers may well find themselves becomig curiously protective..Helen Humphreys delivers her perfect game.

Meet the Author

Helen Humphreys, a poet and novelist, is the author of The Lost Garden, Afterimage, Leaving Earth, and Coventry. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.

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