Almost five years ago (hard to believe it’s been that long!), I ran a blog series on the various roles that women held in the medieval and early modern world: Russia in particular, but also in the lands to the east, south, and west. The series started with “Women of Steel,” which looked at why I made my main Legends heroine, Nasan, a Tatar instead of a Russian and what life was like for the nomadic women of the Eurasian steppe. The series continued through July 2013, and if you’re interested in the topic, you can follow it backward from “Taking the Veil.” By August I was facing up to the demands of the then-new book, long since published, with a post on how to tackle the subject of “Men at War.”
So I was delighted to have a chance to interview Gwen Katz on New Books in Historical Fiction. We discuss her debut novel, Among the Red Stars, which looks at the women who flew for the Soviet Union as combat pilots. Through the lives of an appealing and courageous bomber pilot, her dedicated but (through no fault of her own) politically suspect navigator and cousin, and the pilot’s best friend, a young man drafted into the Red Army as a ham radio operator, we get a full and fascinating introduction to this little-known element of the Second World War: women who battled to take part in the fighting and men who would much rather have stayed home.
As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Valentina (Valka) Koroleva and her cousin Iskra share a dream: to fly in defense of their Soviet motherland against the Nazi forces that have launched a surprise invasion in violation of Hitler’s nonaggression pact with Stalin. So when Valka receives a telegram announcing the formation of all-female fighting and bomber units, the two of them set off for Moscow without hesitation.
The number of applicants far exceeds the slots available, and the competition proves tougher than Valka and her cousin anticipate. But while they do not in the end become elite fighter pilots, they do make the cut for the night bomber unit: Valka as a pilot and Iskra as her navigator. Soon they are flying a shaky biplane constructed of wood and canvas, liable to burst into flames or crash without warning, against the German forces. Meanwhile, Valka’s best friend, Pasha, has been drafted into a ground regiment where he operates a ham radio under harsh conditions. He and Valka exchange regular letters, expressing their different experiences of war.
But fighting for the Soviet Union means coping not only with the enemy but also with Stalin’s paranoia. Iskra’s parents, arrested even before the war, cast a long shadow on her prospects for success despite her willingness to sacrifice her life for her country. Some of Valka’s assigned targets turn out to be people on her own side. Pilots shot down in combat or soldiers captured in an ambush are declared traitors to the state. And she learns that those in authority—or even comrades in arms—are at times the most likely to denounce those suspected of disloyalty, a category that includes insubordination. So although Among the Red Stars is listed as Young Adult, in fact Gwen Katz has written a novel that, because it tackles difficult problems with honesty, will appeal to adults as well. It is also a riveting tale about women in combat, female friendship, and survival against the odds.
And don’t forget to check out her website, linked in the paragraph above, where she has a collection of artworks linked to the book.