cover image The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown

The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown

Theodore Taylor. William Morrow & Company, $23 (300pp) ISBN 978-0-380-97689-8

In the late 1940s, when every aspiring black pilot had heard of the army's Tuskegee program, Jesse Leroy Brown set his sights on becoming a navy aviator. An outstanding student and top athlete, the 17-year-old's ambition was met with a combination of incredulity and resistance. Yet, at a time when Jim Crow laws were rampant, Brown managed to break the color barrier to become the first black U.S. Navy pilot. Taylor (The Cay) puts his considerable narrative skills to good use in tracing Brown's path from his youth in poverty-stricken Palmer's Crossing, Miss., to his eventual induction into the heady and dangerous world of carrier aviation. Taylor based much of his research on interviews with those who knew Brown and on personal letters from more than a half-century ago. He doesn't skimp on the indignities Brown suffered. At flight training in Illinois, the ""Negro"" stewards who served student pilots took an immediate offense at his presence and treated him rudely, giving him only half portions. Elsewhere, Brown and his wife and their best friends, a white couple, were refused service at both a black and a white restaurant, and wound up eating in their car. Although readers may balk at first at Taylor's supposition of Brown's innermost thoughts--""Just forget my color. Please. Just teach me""--the overall effect is an engaging and intimate glimpse of a young pioneer who desperately wanted to earn his aviator's wings. Brown's death in Korea at age 24 makes his story and his accomplishments all the more poignant. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.)