Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Daughters of the Night Sky by Aimie K. Runyan, an absorbing portrait of WWII's Night Witches

A superb portrait of wartime valor, Daughters of the Night Sky spotlights the accomplishments of the Russian military aviators known as the “Night Witches.” These all-female Red Army regiments flew harassment bombing missions against the Nazis under cover of darkness, in hand-me-down planes and without radios, to diminish the enemy’s strength and disrupt their sleep. It worked.

We see the action from the viewpoint of Ekaterina (Katya) Ivanova, who has dreamed of flying since childhood. With her widowed mother’s support, she enrolls in a military academy for aviators. The story follows her training, her excitement at acceptance into a volunteer regiment led by a renowned female major, and the daring sorties she flies as her best friend’s navigator – and through significant moments of exhilaration, cameraderie, and sorrow. There’s a subtle romantic subplot, and Katya draws sustenance from her beloved’s letters, but it doesn’t overwhelm her dedication.

There are numerous hardships for Katya and her fellow aviators to overcome, from insufficient rations and icy temperatures to subtle resentment and outright sexual harassment. They enter into a man’s world quite literally, as exemplified by the male uniforms and undergarments distributed to them (complete with flap at the front, which they joke could be a place to hold their lipstick), but they modify them to almost fit. Tough and disciplined, they know they must surpass men’s expectations and accomplishments to be taken seriously. Soviet ideals stressed gender equality, and the novel acknowledges Comrade Stalin’s approval of these military women while providing examples of his totalitarianism.

In historical novels about multiple women, authors tend to slot them into compartments, creating characters representing different societal groups through their contrasting backgrounds: the snobby rich girl vs. the ambitious poor one, city-dwellers vs. na├»ve country folk, etc. Fortunately, as in her previous two books set in early Quebec, Runyan avoids this temptation. The aviators have unique characteristics and motivations, and despite their occasional disputes, she emphasizes how Katya and the others unite to perform their courageous mission. They form tight quartets – pilot, navigator, armorer, mechanic – whose lives are mutually dependent.

It’s a pleasure to see the author grow in strength as a novelist while adapting to a new historical setting. Her tension has grown sharper, her characterizations deeper, the emotional quality more penetrating. At one key moment, I worried she’d plotted herself into a corner, but this wasn’t the case; I found myself impressed by how this situation was resolved. With its absorbing blend of technical details and emotional resonance, Daughters of the Night Sky is a great way to wrap up your historical fiction reading year, or to start your new year of reading in 2018.

I received this copy for review via NetGalley. Daughters of the Night Sky, officially released by Lake Union in January, is the historical fiction pick for Amazon First Reads in December 2017. If you have a Kindle, I recommend selecting it as your choice!

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