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.

Book Review – Star of the North

  • Title: Star of the North: A Novel Based on the Life of Catherine the Great
  • Author: Helene Lehr
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 06/01/2014

This historical novel is written like a romance – a bad one. The thing I like about good historical fiction is that it should immerse you in a time and place. The real historical figures and the fictional creations should feel equally real. This novel was not good historical fiction. Catherine the Great is flat and somewhat boring, and the author seems more interested in her various love affairs, than the affairs d’etat of the Russian Empire. Overall, the book reads like a romance novel – and not even a good romance novel.

Not only is Catherine fairly flat as the central character, but the rest of the Court is even worse. Peter, Catherine’s husband, is basically made fun of because of his looks – something caused by serious illness (smallpox) and not the man’s fault. Yet throughout the book, Catherine’s beauty is contrasted with her husband’s ugliness. Peter’s lack of handsome looks is also used as justification for Catherine’s affairs (that, and the somewhat more understandable lack of a physical relationship between the two who despise one another).

But beyond the flat characterization, and the romantic emphasis – this book hit one of my absolute pet peeves. The vocabulary is simplistic. I really hate reading a book where it is clear the author is determined to use No Big Words – as if that’s a good thing. I swear, some of the longest words in the entire book are the Russian, Polish, and occasionally German names. It’s insulting to the reader for an author to assume they have to use vocabulary more appropriate to a children’s book. (And since I think children should be challenged – I don’t think even children’s authors should be restricted in the words they use.) Reading bland, boring prose, as found in Star of the North – The Story of Catherine the Great gives the whole process of reading historical fiction a bad reputation.

Finally, the book ends, really, when it should have started – with Catherine seizing the throne and becoming Empress. The rest of the book is an historical epilogue that’s mildly more interesting than the entire book.

I don’t know when or where I picked up this book – I probably got it through one of the bookclubs I belonged to back in the 1990s, and the book has been sitting on the shelf since. But it was an awful read, and I do not recommend it.