Maggie Shipstead’s book Great Circle is a multi-saga. It’s a family saga, a historical saga, a saga of a girl with a goal, so a cultural saga of women’s struggles. The only part of her story that is true is the history bits, but Shipstead did her due diligence and she knows the flight records achieved with regularity after Kitty Hawk. Women who flew were a key target of her studies. In the midst of her prose story she will recite a timely fact about a milestone accomplished by a pilot.
Marian and Jamie Graves lost their abused and understandably reluctant mother as infants when the ship their father, Addison Graves, was captaining exploded and sank. Their father was sent to Sing Sing prison for disobeying the code of captains at sea in order to save the twin infants. The children grew up under the neglectful care of their painter uncle, Wallace Graves, addicted to gambling and drinking. When Addison was released he took one look at the young twins and walked away, unable to believe that he would be a good father. (In fact, there are a lot of reluctant parents in this book and perhaps an argument for the individualism promoted by free-range parenting.)
Years later, in 2014, if you go by chronology, we meet Hadley, a young actress whose life parallels Marian’s. She also lost her parents and was raised by an uncle. Her parents died when their plane crashed into Lake Superior. In the midst of a boyfriend scandal, Hadley, hoping to rehab her reputation takes on the role of Marian Graves, a heroine of her childhood from a book recommended to her by a school librarian. So, the story becomes a two-fer and the modern “Marian” is not necessarily having an easier time of it than the Marian of the last century who tried to navigate a life that went against the cultural grain.
Great Circle is not just a fictional saga though. Marian’s story tells us about obstacles women face when they don’t feel comfortable within the narrow norms that circumscribe women’s lives. Marian’s fascination with the poles, the ultimate test of cold places which was a male domain, and her encounter with a married pair of barnstormers who stay with her uncle and take her up for her first flight, sets the course for her life. Her uncle cannot hold on to money. In order to learn to fly Marian delivers bootleg liquor and wine during Prohibition. She is young and slight. She can pass for a boy if she dresses in overalls and pulls a hat low and tries not to make eye contact. This works until she meets Barclay McQueen, a wealthy, powerful and seemingly respectable criminal. He is fascinated by Marian but she is too young. He woos her with pilot lessons and airplanes, wins her reluctant hand in marriage, and tries to control her and tame her by forcefully raping her until she is pregnant. Once Marian wins her freedom she flies, literally and figuratively. Her life’s trajectory faces the constant limits on what is allowed for women. Marian always finds ways to fly. She even finds ways to love who she loves, finding herself in love with Ruth and Caleb at the same time.
Hadley, our modern “Marian”, star of the movie Peregrine about Grave’s life and disappearance/death, still, in the twenty-first century, finds herself, at the beginning of her career in a #metoo moment. Even later in her career she finds herself in the midst of sexual shaming, which leads to her losing her star role in a TV series called Archangel. However, she has gained some equanimity over the years and is freed to accept the role in Peregrine, a possible future indie success with greater heft than her former roles.
The novel is readable and long, although it doesn’t really seem long. Do the themes justify the length? There is some really good writing in there. It gives us two great stories and many side stories. Could the author had made more of the great circle analogy so that when the moment came for Marian to tackle her dream it seemed like a true culmination? Possibly. The novel still accomplishes a lot and the characters may have longevity and enter that group of fictional people who we perceive as real. Only time will tell. Is Marian’s Great Circle dream ever realized? Perhaps. But culturally our goals might rather be to break some great circles, send the lines off in new directions that offer far more freedom from gender roles and rules.