Endurance Record Does Not Fall Easily

LEAVING EARTH

By Helen Humphreys

Metropolitan Books

244 pp., $23

In her first novel, "Leaving Earth," Helen Humphreys provides a haunting tribute to the world's first women aviators, who defied the limitations of their sex by embarking on perilous, pioneering flights more than 50 years ago.

Willa Briggs and Grace O'Gorman, two young women in Depression-era Toronto, seek to break the world flight-endurance record, against the odds of society and family.

As they circle above Toronto for a proposed 19 days, the author follows them with immediate and striking detail, forcing us to experience the hardship of their flight. In this enclosed world, they exist as extensions of the machine they drive, living in a prison of monotony and daily grind.

Humphreys's language is lyrical and poetic, but she does not lose the grit and grain of the close-up lens. She allows no comfortable distance between the readers and her heroines. We are drawn into their strange life, where earthborn reality dissolves into airborne reality, and their ties to each other grow stronger than their ties to the land below.

Humphreys's treatment of this relationship is impressive for its subtlety and detailed nuance, yet it is here that the story loses focus. Their relationship often appears more important than everything that has driven them so far - their ambitions to break the record or be world-class fliers. In some ways, the characteristics and attitudes of women in the '90s have been plastered onto a portrait of women in the '30s.

That said, the novel should be noted for its well-researched technical detail and its pastiche of prewar society at a time when nothing seemed certain - economics, social place, or peace. This is an impressive, touching debut.

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