On a whim while passing through Chicago O’Hare a few weeks ago, I picked up a novel for the combination of its title—Great Circle—and the sketch of a diving biplane on its cover. But it wasn’t without a certain amount of trepidation. It’s a tall order to weave realistic flying into a fictional piece, especially when the author is not themselves a pilot.
But with raves from the New York Times Book Review and a Booker Prize Finalist seal jumping out at me—along with the need to have something analog for the airplane flight ahead—I took a chance. I’m glad I did.
The novel follows twin plots—that of pilot Marian Graves starting in 1914, and the actor Hadley Baxter, who is to play her in a movie of her life in the present (pre-pandemic) day. As Hadley researches for the role, she gets the sense that there’s more to the story of Marian than has been captured in the books written about her. And she’s correct.
Drawing from Past Pilots
Shipstead drew Marian as a composite of several famous women pilots who attempted bold crossings or circumnavigations, as well as those who served during World War II in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and the women’s division of the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). In fact, Jackie Cochran makes an appearance, as do the Lindberghs.
There’s much opportunity for Shipstead to strike a false note, but she rarely misses. From Marian’s early days flying bootleg alcohol across the Canadian border in Montana, to her flying time up in Alaska, she manages to make her sound like a true pilot. Too, when Marian is called to join the ATA and meets with Jackie herself, she gets many of her well-known details right.
Where I Got Lost
The only place when I lost my “willing suspension of disbelief”—required to truly lose yourself in a story—came near the end. After the war, having lost so much, she embarks on a circumnavigation that will take her pole to pole, North to South in 1948 to 1949. She takes a navigator along—another man with whom she shares a tragic past—and he’s not a pilot. They are flying a surplus Douglas C-47—and with that, my radar went up, having spent many years researching the DC-3 variants for my own work.
I’m not going to spoil the plot, but I decided to cut the author a bit of slack. Can you guess why?
It’s like a certain plot twist in Top Gun: Maverick, which I am also not going to spoil, where I had to just go along with the thread. The work of an author of historical fiction—like the scriptwriter for a blockbuster sequel—has a tough job with those of us in the skeptical crowd, who fancy ourselves experts. If you like a good story about the golden age of aviation, I think you’ll be able to fly along on the Great Circle.