Elizabeth Wein has a talent for creating tough female characters who fly airplanes, fight Nazis and persevere amid the horrors of war. To create these women in her young adult novels, including “Code Name Verity” and “Rose Under Fire,” Wein conducted research — and later almost apologized for using that research to write a novel. “It pains me to admit that ‘Code Name Verity’ is fiction,” and that the characters are “not actually real people,” she wrote in an afterword to that book.
In A THOUSAND SISTERS: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II (Balzer + Bray, 384 pp., $19.99; ages 13 and up), Wein has finally written the nonfiction narrative that seems to have been living inside her. Young adult readers are going to appreciate it: a powerful tale about real women who waged war against the Nazis, and won.
The book recounts the story of three regiments of female pilots flying bomber and fighter planes for the Soviet Union during World War II. Aviation enthusiasts may know these women as the “Night Witches” — a term coined by the Nazis to describe one of the regiments. But Wein — a pilot herself — smartly avoids the sensational term. The women never called themselves Night Witches, and so Wein doesn’t, either, choosing instead to focus on their unlikely sisterhood. The women overcame almost impossible odds from the start.
In the United States and England, just being a woman was enough to disqualify one from flying combat missions. Even America’s best female pilots were forced into lesser, civilian jobs: transporting military planes from factories to bases.
In the Soviet Union, Stalin was certainly no progressive; he murdered his political enemies at will. But when the Nazis invaded in 1941, the Soviet Union’s most famous female pilot — Marina Raskova — persuaded Stalin to let women fly and fight the Germans.
In the years to come, Raskova’s regiments would fly as many as 300 missions a night — an estimated 24,000 in all — under conditions so brutal as to be absurd. Starvation and freezing temperatures. Stalin’s orders and Hitler’s invaders. Slow, primitive airplanes that would burn “like candles” if struck by antiaircraft fire. And, of course, the constant reminder that the next mission, in the cold Soviet night, might be their last. Dozens of Soviet airwomen — including some of the nation’s most beloved pilots — died during the war, flying, one woman reported, into “a continuous curtain of fire.”
As a result, many women struggled with headaches and anxiety after the war. “We had been fighting for one thousand nights,” one female pilot said, “one thousand nights in combat.” But it was worth it, they believed — not just because they defeated the Nazis, but because they proved something: They were fighters just like the men. “I am completely absorbed in combat life,” one of them would say. “I can’t seem to think of anything but the fighting.”
It’s difficult to write a historical narrative with multiple characters — and Wein clearly grapples with that problem. At times, the book’s title — “A Thousand Sisters” — seems all too fitting. There are many names to remember. Wein also relies too much on italics or exclamation points to emphasize a fact that would be powerful enough on its own. Likewise, at the conclusion of the book she tells us how to feel, instead of letting us digest the amazing story and figure it out for ourselves.
But readers will forgive these shortcomings, reveling instead in the story
Wein hasn’t just brought a lost generation of airwomen back to life. “A Thousand Sisters” should inspire a new generation of young girls—and boys, too. This story proves what every child should know: A woman can do anything.