Readers who are interested in aviation will be especially drawn to Helen Humphreys's Leaving Earth (HarperCollins, 214 pages, $24 cloth), the story of two fictitious aviatrixes, Grace O'Gorman, already a legend, and her co-pilot, the much less experienced twenty-three-year-old Willa Briggs, on a twenty-five-day mission to break a flight endurance record-a record held by Grace's aviator husband Jack. Much of the novel's suspense comes from the fact that it is Jack who flies the refuelling plane, Grace and Willa's only connection with the world below. The mission involves continuously circling Toronto until August 25th, when the plane is scheduled to land at the Canadian National Exhibition. One can imagine the monotony, the cramped isolation, the physical discomfort of such a flight, which Grace and Willa endure through sheer dedication and willpower. They face down the dangers, overcome the challenges, deal with the inconveniences. After losing their writing tools in a storm, they can no longer pencil notes to each other. So, in order to fight exhaustion and boredom as well as to continue to communicate, they develop their own elaborate sign language.
Meanwhile, on the ground, the newspaper is filled with news about the Nazis. It is 1933, the atmosphere pre-war and volatile. Swastikas are appearing in Toronto courtesy of the Swastika Club, which boasts a Canadian membership of 80,000. While Grace and Willa fly their circles around the Toronto harbour in a world far removed from the one down below, a young girl named Maddy dreams of being just like them as she watches from the CNE fairgrounds. What happens to Maddy and her family over the time of Grace's and Willa's flight represents in microcosm the hostility building throughout the world.
Humphreys delivers an intriguing combination of adventure, moral awareness, and political connotation. The result is a novel that aptly captures the mood of an era and pays homage to a particular breed of woman who helped create it.