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Among the Red Stars by Gwen C. Katz is, at it’s most basic, a novel about the famed Night Witches, the Russian night bomber unit who grew the fearsome name by turning off their engines and gliding to their drops. However, this novel is more complicated than that. I expected for it to be focused on the missions and the strategy, but it was more about the characters and their intricate friendships as they’re wound together against the backdrop of World War II.
The story opens with the true story of the disappearance of the Rodina, a Russian plane aspiring to set a distance record and completely run by women, but from the point of view of Valka, our hero, as she listens to the coverage on the radio. From the start, we know that Valka admires Marina Raskova, who we meet in person later in the book. However, chapter one doesn’t give us much description of the main characters that we’ll be watching for the rest of the novel, just that they are very close and that they want to listen to the coverage of the Rodina.
This lack of descriptive detail is somewhat made up for in the next couple chapters, which are set three years later. It’s obvious that Valka idolizes Raskova, and her passion for flying as well as her adoration for her flight club’s horrible plane is obvious. I would’ve liked to know a bit more about her flight club, especially the other pilots involved and how she joined. Many of the historical details that I’d be interested to know about aren’t described throughout the novel, but with it already being at 381 pages, it probably wouldn’t be reasonable to ask for much more.
My favorite aspect of the book is that it’s structured in two segments – the narrative, and the letters between Pasha and Valka. The narrative shows us more of the mundanities of being a woman in the Russian military during World War II, and we get snapshots of the more intimate parts of Valka’s life, whereas the letters are things that Valka sees as most important when speaking to the boy she loves. Most of the battle scenes are described by Valka in her letters to Pasha, and we’re able to get a sense of the amount of time passing by the dates. In a lot of war-themed fiction, the male characters are strong leaders who fear nothing, but Pasha’s letters illustrate that war is not something to strive for, as he is not the type of boy who wanted to be a soldier – he’s a kind, gentle boy who was forced into service by the draft. We also get the perspective, mainly from her letters, that Valka cares deeply for her country, but she fears the fact that people can get arrested for saying anything against their nation, which is shown to be a common occurrence throughout the way characters speak warily about Russia throughout the novel.
Although the story revolves around the many female friendships, Among the Red Stars doesn’t fall into any of the tropes usually associated with groups of girls being together. Instead, it follows the more usual structure from military stories, that of comrades in arms who care deeply about each other through everything. It’s a refreshing take on the friendships of girls – rather than having petty arguments and catty disagreements, we see a more realistic take on women who depend on each other for not only their survival, but their sanity if they are to make it through the war.
The romance in the story is quiet and understated, which I quite enjoyed – oftentimes, the romantic arc in a YA novel will outweigh the plot, but Katz made it clear that, while Pasha and Valka’s feelings for each other were important, they were not all-encompassing in a way that would distract the readers from the story.
Overall, as a person who doesn’t usually read historical fiction, I enjoyed Katz’s premier novel, and I look forward to reading whatever she puts out in the future. Katz is great at writing what it truly is to be a girl, and the type of enduring friendships that can follow a girl throughout life.