A new historical thriller masterpiece from New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Elizabeth Wein
Emilia and Teo’s lives changed in a fiery, terrifying instant when a bird strike brought down the plane their stunt pilot mothers were flying. Teo’s mother died immediately, but Em’s survived, determined to raise Teo according to his late mother’s wishes-in a place where he won’t be discriminated against because of the color of his skin. But in 1930s America, a white woman raising a black adoptive son alongside a white daughter is too often seen as a threat.
Seeking a home where her children won’t be held back by ethnicity or gender, Rhoda brings Em and Teo to Ethiopia, and all three fall in love with the beautiful, peaceful country. But that peace is shattered by the threat of war with Italy, and teenage Em and Teo are drawn into the conflict. Will their devotion to their country, its culture and people, and each other be their downfall or their salvation?
In the tradition of her award-winning and bestselling Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein brings us another thrilling and deeply affecting novel that explores the bonds of friendship, the resilience of young pilots, and the strength of the human spirit. – Goodreads
This is the first Elizabeth Wein book I’ve read, but she’s legendary for her WWII historical fiction novels, Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. I’ve been meaning to read them for quite some time, so when I saw this book on the list of upcoming releases, I jumped at the chance to finally read some of her work. And she completely lived up to her reputation.
In her newest novel, Wein takes on a new locale and time period – and populates her historical landscape with some memorable characters bent on defying the rules of the time and place they were born to.
It begins with two female stunt pilots, Rhoda and Delia, one of whom is white and the other black. They’re both American, but Rhoda is married to an Italian military pilot with whom she has a daughter, and Delia’s son is the child of an Ethiopian government official she met in Paris. The two women are best friends, and they do stunt flying exhibitions.
The pair are unstoppable, taking on every challenge that comes their way fearlessly. Until one day tragedy strikes – during one of their flights, a bird hits their plane mid-flight and it crashes, killing Delia and injuring Rhoda.
It takes some time for Rhoda to recover – both physically and mentally. Her family takes care of her and both her daughter, Em, and Delia’s son, Teo. Over time she gets better and decides that she must realize Delia’s dream of moving the children to Ethiopia so that Teo might know his homeland. She leaves the kids and sets off for Africa, where she secures a plane from her husband and hooks up with a clinic, flying the doctor to remote areas and taking photographs to sell to magazines. Once she’s set up a home and established a way to support them, she sends for the kids who quickly become at home in the Ethiopian countryside, abandoning shoes for bare feet and learning the local language and customs.
For several years their lives are wonderful and full of adventures and childhood fun… until the threat of conflict with Italian forces stationed on the Eritrean border looms, and a revelation about Teo’s father shatters their idyllic lives.
Despite misgivings, Rhoda begins teaching the children how to fly so that if Teo is forced to fight, at least he won’t be on the ground wielding a spear against an army with machine guns.
This book was not, in any way, what I expected. And yet, it was one that thrilled and shocked me page after page. This is not a conflict I had any prior knowledge of, nor was I well versed on Ethiopian history. While this book was a work of fiction, it was obviously well-researched, and Wein created such a vibrant cast of characters that I felt like I was right there with them as they took to the sky and faced some of their biggest fears.
This is one of those books that will have you at the edge of your seat as you’re reading, that will have you pausing to re-read particularly affecting lines, and that will stick with you well after you’ve closed its covers. It also may teach you a bit about a history you were previously unaware of – maybe even send you looking for more information. Which is always a good sign. I’m going to leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
One of the wonderful things about this book is the sheer guts of the characters (and their love of being in the air). This passage took my breath away. It’s a description Em gives of the first time her mother climbed out of her seat to wing-walk while Em was in control of the plane. Her mother had been the aerial acrobat when she few with Delia, but since Delia’s death she had remained inside the plane… until now:
“She didn’t answer. I glanced back at her again, holding the plane as steady as I could, and saw her step up out of her seat and set a foot calmly onto the body of the plane. She wasn’t wearing a line or anything – she wasn’t even holding on to one of the straps from her seat. I ground my teeth together, aware of her reaching up into the wires that crisscross between the lower wing and the upper wing. I snatched another glance backward and she was sanding on the fuselage behind me, hanging on to a wire with one hand and waving at the men below with broad, happy sweeps of her other arm.
“It is true that we have written about Black Dove and White Raven doing exactly this in the air. But writing about it is not the same thing at all as trying to fly a plane while your mother is standing on top of it waving at people.” – p. 174
At its heart, this is a story about courage. The courage it takes to be different, to buck societal norms and to doggedly pursue your goals. Each character in this book either serves to reinforce the limits placed on us by time, gender, race or politics – or demonstrates just how much can be accomplished if we choose to fight against seemingly insurmountable odds for what we believe in and those we love.
“Doing the thing you are scared of is much harder than not being afraid of anything. It is easy to be brave. It is not so easy to be scared and do a brave thing anyway.” – p. 236
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Published By: Doubleday Canada
Released: March 31, 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction, Conflict, Ethiopia
Date Read: March 18-25, 2015