- 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.