Historical fiction master Kathryn Lasky takes to the skies as she shines light on World War II’s unsung heroes in Night Witches. Sixteen-year-old Valya is an expert pilot who has always felt more at home in a cockpit than on the ground. When the war rips her family apart, Valya wants nothing more than to join her sister as a Night Witch, a member of fearless female fighter pilots. Using determination and wit, Valya joins the Night Witches as they take on critical missions against Nazi bases. If they succeed, they’ll push the Nazis further back and gain glory. If they fail, they face death or worse.
What inspired you to write Night Witches? Do you remember what you were doing, or where you were?
Oddly enough, I do remember what I was doing and where I was. I was in my kitchen, eating breakfast and reading the New York Time obituary page. I came across the obituary of Nadezheda Popova, one of the last Night Witches. I was immediately fascinated. I never knew there had been an all women air combat team. Nadzheda had flown close to 900 missions in these tiny little planes that were basically made of fabric and wood. The planes were so fragile and the risks so high. I couldn’t imagine how they summoned the courage to do this. But there was this quote from her where she said, “I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes. I can still imagine myself as a young girl up there in my little bomber and I ask myself, Nadia, how did you do it?”. I knew in that instant I had to write a book about these women.
Why is a story like this important?
First of all, we need to show the world what women can do and what women are capable of. When we deprive women of their rights we are in essence depriving the world and squandering a great resource. Secondly, one of the unique attributes of the Taman Guard, the official name of the Night Witches, was their unique teamwork. I happen to think that women are very skillful in working together. The Taman Guard invented new ways of servicing their planes on the ground and attacking targets from the air that depended on intricate teamwork of decoying and bombing strategies. It was all teamwork.
Why was the narrative of sisterhood so important to the story? How would the book have been different if you had not included Tatyana?
I had to have Tatyana. She was an integral part of the plot of the book, or I should say she was a motivational driver for Valya. I have a sister, and sisterhood has been a narrative driver for so many of my books. And ultimately this book is sisterhood squared, if you will, for all of these Night Witches were sisters in war.
What kind of research did you do to write this book?
Oh, so much research I hardly know where to begin. Anthony Beevor’s book Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege was vitally important, as was A Dance With Death: Soviet Women in World War II by Ann Noggle. The Noggle book contained remembrances written by actual Night Witches. Then there were scores of other books. I also watched a lot of old news clippings about the air war, studied drawings and photos of the bi-planes that they flew. My research just goes on and on.
What surprised you the most about the Night Witches themselves?
They were so young and so brave and their bond with this unique regiment was so powerful. The entire time I was researching and writing I kept thinking “I could never do this…never…”. But of course, we don’t know until we are called upon. The other thing that might sound very strange is that their love of Russia was profound and steadfast. Yet, they all knew how treacherous Stalin was. He was every bit as brutal as Hitler in many ways. It was interesting to me that Russian was called the Mother Land while Germany was called the Fatherland. There is a certain irony in that.
Did any of the incidents of the book come directly from your research?
Yes, many. For example, the bombed boat sinking at the pier that Valya was hoping to get on came from my research. The sniper Yuri was modeled after a real life Russian sniper. Many of the bombing raids were modeled after ones I read about.
How did you write the atrocities of war? Did you find yourself getting overwhelmed with the subject?
I read many accounts in the Noggle book, and some of them were just too difficult for me. I would have to force myself to read on. I would think, I’m sitting here comfortable in my own study. I should be able to do this at least read about it. I had to strike a balance between what I knew and what I could write. I didn’t want to candy coat war in anyway, but on the other hand I didn’t to put off my readers and drive them away. It was kind of a high wire act. It always is when you are writing about violence.
Valya comments on the war and her activities as a pilot. What did you find in your research about how the war affected the Night Witches?
A lot of the materials on the Night Witches themselves was written before the Soviet regime ended in the 90’s. I had the feeling that there was great censorship and that not all of these pilots could be as forthcoming as they would have liked about how the war affected them. But all in all I think these women came away proud of their service and extraordinarily proud of their sisterhood of pilots.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Night Witches?
Yes, it’s really important that readers know that the name Night Witches came not from the Soviets, but from the Nazis. Because of the low horsepower of their aircraft engines, they hardly made any noise. Some said they were as quiet as sewing machines which made them perfect for sneaking up on bombing targets. The Nazis thought they sounded like the whoosh of a witch’s broom. Not only that because the Night Witches flew without lights the Nazis were convinced that their eyes had been injected with some chemical that made them capable of seeing on the blackest nights. The Nazi reasoning is so macabre. I find it fascinating.