Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
North Carolina Aviatrix Viola Gentry: The Flying Cashier
By Jennifer Bean Bower
The History Press, 192 pages
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a … woman?
Viola Gentry, an early female aviation pioneer from North Carolina, our own Wonder Woman, is the subject of a biography by Jennifer Bean Bower. Gentry took to the skies in the 1920s and fought many of the early battles for women in aviation—before even Amelia Earhart showed up. Though she has fallen into greater obscurity than Earhart, Bower has put together a beautiful biography of one of the Tar Heel State’s heroines.
In 1926 the daring aviatrix flew under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges and secured press coverage that money can’t buy. The image of a female stunt flyer—who worked a day job as a restaurant cashier to finance her passion for flying—captivated the public and earned her the nickname “The Flying Cashier.” The press ate it up and the small-town girl from Rockingham County, North Carolina, was smart enough to capitalize on that interest. She managed to parlay it into the first official women’s endurance solo flight record. She survived a plane crash in 1929 that killed her co-pilot and left her in recovery for more than a year. It was a harrowing time, with calls for blood donors to get tested to see if they matched her, and also a serious decline in her financial state.
Unlike many early flyers, Gentry was not wealthy but from a blue-collar background. She had multiple barriers to overcome when pursuing her aviation dreams; obviously, the gender bar was one. In addition the expenses associated with learning to fly were very high; Lone flying lessons cost as much as two weeks wages. In a field dominated by the wealthy, her working-class background was hardly an asset. She apparently had determination, grit and enough savvy to make it come together against the odds.
Gentry’s story is fascinating. The retelling of it is sort of like pizza: It is all good—some would just be better than others.
Jennifer Bean Bower’s book is incredibly informative and very well-researched. She clearly has a background writing articles and working as a researcher. For me the story should have actually started on page 21: “It all began with a visit to an ostrich farm….” would have been an awesome lede for this. Because it was on that visit to an ostrich farm, the rebellious young Viola Gentry took her first ride in an airplane—and was spanked as punishment for doing so. Bower chooses to start the story with Gentry’s birth, a time-honored biographic technique—to think of the writing as more scholarly and less sensational.
The story of Gentry’s life is absolutely sensational from page to page; she just can’t be stopped! Heartbreak, lack of family support, financial disasters, sexism, even crashing her plane … nothing stops this woman. As a researcher, Bower is awesome and the book is filled with images of Viola Gentry’s pilot’s licenses, post cards from places she lived and worked, and her publicity stills. In addition to recounting Gentry’s life, the book chronicles the changing world of America in the 20th century. Both World Wars occur, followed by the expansion and prosperity of the 1950s. Amelia Earhart disappears. How does she respond to the disappearance of her contemporary? As the world of aviation opens up and technology is refined, how does it impact the opportunities available to women in general—and her specifically? Bower ably answers such questions without getting distracted from the narrative of Gentry’s life.
In short she places Gentry’s story in the context of her time consistently. That is truly a biographer’s chief objective and all too often one that gets lost in the shuffle. But Bower clearly understands her subject and makes her a very human figure who gets up every time she gets knocked down. For women in the 20th century, it was pretty much constant, let alone women who wanted to fly airplanes.
I can’t help but wonder why Gentry’s name is not as well lauded as Earhart’s, at the very least in North Carolina? Her accomplishments were remarkable and her life was quite sensational (minus the mysterious disappearance piece). Actually, she lived well into her 90s, a ripe old age by any standard—but especially so for a thrill-seeking personality. As a feminist icon and a North Carolina heroine, she is par excellence!
Jennifer Bean Bower has performed an important and much-needed public service by bringing Viola Gentry’s story back into public dialogue. It’s a perfect read for anyone, but especially aviation buffs, NC enthusiasts and historians, young ladies looking for real-life role models, and women who have fought the good fight quietly without recognition.