Onward and upward to the glass ceiling

Black Wings, by Kathleen Toomey Jabs. Fuze Publishing.  314 pages. $19.95.

Did young and gorgeous hotshot Navy flyer Audrey Richards crash her plane through incompetence, or was her flight sabotaged – either mechanically or psychologically – by jealous, zealous male rivals in the Naval Air community? Whatever the official story, her former Naval Academy roommate, LT Bridget Donovan, feels compelled to find the truth. 

Donovan, from her junior post in the Navy’s public relations establishment, has to get the story out – to handle the media. However, she senses that the Navy’s story might not be the real story. How does she walk the line between doing her job in an institution wrapped in bureaucracy and legalisms and doing honor to the memory of the classmate with whom she had an uneasy friendship?

Ms. Jabs organizes her narrative into alternating chapters that develop two timelines. One follows a few weeks in the early fall of 2003. It takes us from the news of LT Richards’ disastrous take-off from an aircraft carrier, traces Donovan’s troubled pursuit of both military duty and personal redemption, and tests her honor and courage as she positions herself more and more in harm’s way.

The other timeline covers the two women’s years at the Naval Academy from Plebe Summer of 1986 through graduation in May of 2000. These chapters offer a splendidly detailed representation of Naval Academy life from the perspective of female midshipmen, always a highly visible minority in a world of male traditions. Readers discover how a super-driven character like Richards can at one and the same time irritate her classmates and push them to unexpected achievement. Donovan knows that Richards’ encouragement and example allowed an insecure, faltering plebe (Donovan herself) to hang in there, improve, and make it through with some degree of distinction.

“Onward and upward” was Richards’ cry at each and every obstacle to be overcome.  But how many did she step on as she climbed (before she flew) onward and upward? Super-achiever Audrey Richards was a show-off. She wanted to be noticed. She wanted to be tested. She would not be intimidated or fail.

Within and without the walls of Bancroft Hall, that immense dormitory in which all midshipmen live, there was much to intimidate her. Some of it was institutional – the same kind of pressure and humiliation that all midshipmen have to deal with. Some was cultural – the special kinds of intimidation reserved for women, considered aliens by many male classmates. Some was directed at a special few by a special few.

A secret cadre of midshipman and officers took it upon themselves to determine whose careers were to be blocked through severe intimidation and psychological warfare. Those targets would find black wings in their closets, wrapped in their clothing, sliding out of their homework. These symbolic threats were only the most obvious means of booby-trapping the environment in order to cripple the performance of the alleged misfits.  Audrey Richards, who could out-pushup the men while making them drool over her stunning beauty, was a target relentlessly pursued. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears [retitled] in the March 29, 2012 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Kathleen Jabs

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