Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein – Book Review

Usually my go to subgenre that I enjoy the most is secondary world fiction, because I like to be taken away to a different world. But often historical fiction set in far away countries can do the same thing, and this one takes you away to Ethiopia.

The main characters are a boy and a girl growing up together, who’s mothers, Rhoda and Delia, were the best of friends. Em’s father is largely absent, and Teo’s father died of an illness when he ws young, and so the two women have a sort of little combined family. The fact that one mother was white and the other was black never bothered them or their mothers, except when they reach America, where racism was what it was in the thirties.

The mothers are both pilots, and they’re a two-woman travelling flying circus, one flying, the other wing-walking. All this changes though after a bird strike kills Teo’s mother. That particular scene was heartbreaking to read – the  whole story is told in the form of journal entries, flight log entries and letters written by the two children, and that scene, as it’s written, it’s so brief, as if they’re too heartbroken to dwell on it or put in any more detail.

To honour Delia’s dream, Rhoda takes both children to Teo’s father’s home country, Ethiopia.

It’s one of those books that paint a beautiful picture of a beautiful place, and I got settled into loving their new home, Beehive Hill. The descriptions of Christianity as it exists in Ethiopia was facinating, because it like nothing we’re familiar with in the west. It’s a branch of Christianity that split off before Catholicism existed, so while everything we’re familiar with is a product Catholicism’s evolution, the Coptic church is just completely different.

At this point in history, slavery in Ethiopia still exists too, with complicated laws governing it. In order to prevent a sudden economic crisis, it’s being phased out slowly, via various ways of slaves being freed.

All the while, news on the radio foreshadows the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

There’s something eerie about reading a story set in a place that exists though, and events that actually happened, even if the characters themselves are invented. I almost hate Italians now, have read about how they invaded Ethiopia, with the intention of pushing the Ethiopians out and take their land, to settle poor Italians there the way other countries settled their poor in the Americas. And how they used mustard gas to do it.

At about the half way point, I had to remind myself this is an author who kills main characters sometimes, so when the invasion started, I bit my lip to keep reading, not sure how many of these characters would make it out alive. I bet she feels magnanimous when she lets characters live.

Overall, wonderful book; if you like historical fiction and planes, definitely pick it up.

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Book Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

This is a companion book to Wein’s book Code Name Verity, which I loved, and which was one of several things that inspired me to take up flying. Apparently I’m not the only one to start taking lessons after reading it, but I’m the only one the author knows of who’s gone on to get my licence, and she was quite tickled over it.

Anyway, as a companion book, and not a true sequel, it has a different main character, and can be read without having read the previous one. There are a few recurring characters, and it takes place chronologically after Code Name Verity, but it contains minimal spoilers.

In this one, Rose is another ATA pilot, who gets intercepted over france and taken to germany. She ends up in one of the concentration camps, Ravensbruck.

The story begins with Rose writing down her story, much like Code Name Verity did. One of the weaknesses of that format is that you know the character is going to live. In the opening, she’s back in Paris, shortly after her escape. (This wasn’t the case in CNV, as the characters were writing things down more or less as they happened, and there was still uncertainty on their survivability.) The suspense still there was whether her friends escaped. These friends are people you haven’t met yet, but as the story goes on, you do, and then the reminder that the main character doesn’t know what happened to them or if they survived means more and more.

The description of the conditions in Ravensbruck are suitably horrifying. One of the things mentioned early on is the fact that the information coming out of the camps is so horrifying that western Europeans and Americans don’t believe it. They literally didn’t believe it. The stories about the women who were experimented on, the starvation, mass executions, etc. And the Nazis, of course, are trying to hide it, by killing these women they experimented on before the allies can rescue them.

Rose, as she writes, is suffering some pretty severe PTSD. In some ways it made it even harder to read than CNV because I get the PTSD. Maybe nowhere near as severe as Rose would have to have suffered from it, but I understand. I’ve been there, with the nightmares and the waking up not sure where I am, and the panic attacks when someone calls my name or opens the door, or pulls into the driveway. So I get why she’s reluctant to testify in the war crimes trials, which, reading other reviews, seems to be one of the things people have complained about being disappointed by.

Another thing that made me think as I read it, is having just finished the Hunger Games trilogy, and comparing it to Rose Under Fire. In the Hunger Games, Katniss’ suffering and mental breakdown gets a little tiresome and boring. So I had to think to figure out why that doesn’t happen in Rose Under Fire. Rose goes through likely more trauma, sees more death, than Katniss. Why is Rose not annoying in an endless train of poor me‘s? And I think it’s because Rose is constantly reminding herself that she’s not one of the women who got experimented on (the experiments had stopped before she was taken prisoner.) She has people around her who have suffered more and longer than she has, so a lot of her descriptions of suffering are not “poor me”, but poor them. The times when she’s so badly hurt she can’t actually do anything but lay there and feel sorry for herself are mostly glossed over.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. It was cathartic.