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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 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 ...
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.
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.
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'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 know who you are," says Willa.
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"