Book Review – Night Witches

  • Title: Night Witches A Novel of World War II
  • Author: Kathryn Lasky
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/12/2019

**Spoiler Alert** I ordered Night Witches from Amazon after reading about the all-female Russian combat pilot group that fought in World War II. I didn’t realize before ordering it that it was a Young Adult novel, but that is on me, and it made for a quick read. Valya and her sister, Tatyana, learned how to fly at a young age – their father was an air force flight trainer before he disappeared – a victim of Russia’s internal politics. When Stalingrad is blockaded by the German Nazis, Tatyana joins the Night Witches immediately. Valya wants to join too, but at 16, her mother thinks she is too young. During the siege of Stalingrad, first, her grandmother and then her mother are killed. After her mother’s death, Valya leaves the apartment that has been largely leveled, to join the Night Witches. She receives some help from a Russian sniper that took shelter in her flat the night of her mother’s death.

Valya tries to get out of the city to join the Night Witches at their hidden base camp. It’s not an easy journey and for several months she is forced to join a big gun trench. There she loads the guns with huge shells and helps turn the wheels to lower or raise the gun. Valya proves to be very good at shooting tanks and blowing them up. She eventually tries to get to the river to join a ferry that is trying to escape. She is unable to get on the crowded ferry and thus survives when the ferry sinks.

However, eventually, thanks to her excellent work in the trenches, she is given a pass to join the Night Witches. At the staging area, the higher-ups argue about how to physically get her to the base camp. Valya borrows a plane and flies herself there.

At the camp, Valya is first assigned to the maintenance and turn-around crew. She’s disappointed but makes the best of it. Finding the unorganized running to and fro of the crew to be inefficient, Valya comes up with a better way. Her immediate supervisor dismisses the idea – but another woman recognizes a good idea when she hears it and implements it immediately anyway. The new assembly-line type plan, where women work specific jobs instead of running all over greatly improves efficiency. Valya is promoted to navigator.

Valya flies several missions as a navigator, telling her pilot where to fly and dropping bombs on the Germans. In one mission, her friend and pilot is shot – Valya takes over the plane and lands it, despite the damage – but her friend is dead. Valya is promoted to pilot and becomes close friends with her navigator, Galya. On one mission, Valya turns and sees her close friend, Galya, missing from the plane. Fortunately, though, she is found and rescued by other pilots. Valya and her sister, Tatyana also are rivals, until Tatyana disappears on a mission.

The novel briefly summarizes the real history surrounding the siege of Stalingrad, and after the city is freed, the Night Witches become a more general combat unit, but also drop vital supplies to Russian troops. Valya and Galya are on another mission when they are shot down.

When Valya wakes up, she finds herself in a Ukrainian house, being cared for by a strange woman. This woman tells her that her navigator didn’t make it. Valya gradually starts to figure out the issue with the woman – she’s part of the anti-Russian Ukrainian Resistance. Valya also knows that Stalin has decided that all POWs are traitors and ordered them to be killed as enemies of Russia. Valya is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea – even if she’s “rescued” she’ll be killed. Eventually, though, she is rescued by Galya and a small taskforce. Her commander arranges a suitable story to keep Valya alive. When the sniper from earlier in the story tells that same commander he’s seen Valya’s sister in a German POW camp the soldiers are about to liberate, the commander comes up with a plan. Valya, Galya, and a small group are able to rescue Tatyana when she is being moved between locations. Again, the helpful commander prevents Tatyana from being killed as a traitor for getting captured.

The war ends and Tatyana and Valya are given medals by Stalin for their accomplishments as Night Witches.

I liked this book a lot. It’s a Young Adult book, so the horrors of war are downplayed, but the author doesn’t downplay the realities of war so much as to make it sound exciting or in any way a “good thing”. It’s horrible – but Valya is doing her part because it’s necessary. Valya is also interested in the sniper she meets the night her mother is killed, but this isn’t a young adult romance. Valya is frankly too busy to think about boys. The night flying scenes are actually a little vague, but the history of World War II, especially all the details of the Siege of Stalingrad are extremely well integrated into the story. The real history impacts the fictional characters. I also liked Valya, even though, upon reflection, she’s a bit of a Mary Sue. Still, while reading the book the impression is more that Valya is lucky and determined, rather than boringly perfect. I highly recommend this book, especially for pre-teen and teenaged girls.

History and Science Music Vids – Egypt

I really do love what historyteachers have done, combining pop music, fun videos on youTube, and educational information on historical and scientific topics. This is an awesome way to teach and get involvement from students. Besides these are just simply awesome.

Today’s topic:  Historical Egypt


Usual Disclaimer:  As usual, I did not make these I just found them.

A Blog of Their Own – Blogs as Cultural History

This entry original appeared on my Live Journal blog, 3/17/2011 posted at 7:56 PM.  It has not been updated or corrected, except for minor typo corrections.

A Blog of Their Own – Blogs as Cultural History

What is cultural history?  Sometimes dismissed as “women’s history” — cultural history is the history of ordinary people.  People who aren’t presidents, kings or queens, or even the lord and ladies of the highest levels of society.  Yet, it often isn’t the lowest levels of society either – because even with the invention of the printing press, and the implementation of widespread public (or free) education — to be poor meant to be illiterate and to be illiterate meant to be poor.  In other worlds, when it comes to documenting the past — the poorest of the poor still slipped through the cracks.

However, in the 1800s and early 1900s letter-writing and the keeping of journals and diaries were quite common.  So much so that often even the literature of the period was sometimes written as letters, journals, or memoirs.  And cultural historians of today look to the letters of the past to understand the normal people — not just women but anyone who was, at the time, just average.

While watching the extra features for Sherlock I found one of the producers (I don’t remember if it was Gatiss or Moffat, sorry) when talking about updating Sherlock Holmes made this curious statement:  “Dr. Watson wouldn’t keep a journal or write memoirs – he’d keep a Blog”.  Which got me thinking:  Blogs and all social media (and user-generated content) are the social history of today.  Or, at least for the historians of the future, you’d think.

This is an important development.  In the 1980s and 1990s letter-writing virtually disappeared as phone calls replaced letters.  Not that the telephone didn’t exist before then, but long distance calls were expensive, and international calls unreliable and extremely expensive – and the time on the line might even be limited by outside forces.  As e-mail also came on the scene in the late 80s and 90s – it replaced letters as well, but was ephemeral – e-mail was often read and deleted.  It wasn’t going to be around for years.  Cloud computing (web services like Gmail) have increased the length e-mail sticks around but probably not to archive status.

However, now, blogs, Facebook and Twitter entries, etc, are allowing normal, average people the power to not only air their opinions and interests in a public forum, open to debate with often like-minded individuals, but hopefully to be kept for future historians to look at to understand the normal people of today.

And even in contemporary times – social media is becoming a force for breaking news.  During the recent unrest in Egypt (2011) — one of the first things the government did was block social media sites like Facebook and Twitter – to prevent the unedited broadcasting of information by individuals.  And Twitter published a hack to get around the foreign government censorship.  (I personally saw the Twitter Hack post – I was impressed).

When the earthquake hit in Japan, at first services were down — but soon pictures were being sent, literally around the world, by smart phone.  BBC News even had a story covering the content being generated by normal, everyday, average people in Japan – calling the Earthquake the first “viral” disaster – and pointing out how “for the first time” a natural disaster was being covered in real time, instead of in pictures later.

And, I actually still remember being on one of the Doctor Who forums when news of the London underground bombings hit.  (No, I don’t remember which bombings, unfortunately, that is to say – what year.  I know the blame on the board started with the civil service (It was thought to be a “normal” blackout at first), then the IRA, then terrorists, before the news finally figured out it was quite the literally the “lone nut with a bomb”.)  But I do remember finding it weird that I was finding out about this stuff going on in London, via a Doctor Who posting board.  I also remember having an argument with a friend afterwords when I tried to point out all the theories I’d heard.

So, anyway — getting back to the point.  Blogs – journals of today, possibly the cultural artifacts of the future.