Ears on the Odyssey

Review: A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II

 Katya Schapiro finds Elizabeth Wein’s newest fascinating, but questions if it works in audio format.

Thousand Sisters

As a devoted fan of Elizabeth Wein’s, and especially of her scorching Printz honor title Code Name Verity (itself an exceptional audiobook narrated by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell), I jumped at the chance to review A Thousand Sisters. Wein’s tireless research and devotion to the subject of female flyers have brought their buried stories into the mainstream narrative for hundreds of thousands of readers, opening up new historical understanding and pathways for the imagination. She truly inhabits both the mechanical details and the passionate emotions of the women who flew in those early planes, in those difficult days.

Wein’s earlier writings about the Air Transport Auxiliary in the UK opened up one side of this hidden history, touched briefly on the narratives she explores in depth in this new book, the story of three female regiments in the USSR’s Red Army, and the larger story of what it was to be an ambitious woman pilot in a changing society, in a brutal war.

These stories are large and complicated, and many important details have been lost to history or erased, some only recently unearthed. Wein’s research relies heavily on letters (quoted at length), contemporary newspaper accounts and publicity, some interviews, and such military records as can be found. Assuming a fairly minimal knowledge of early Soviet history in her American teen readers, she offers a thorough grounding in the social and geopolitical framework that set the stage for her subject, and then illustrates historical narrative with the personal stories of several representative and incredible fighter pilots, technicians, and officers.

Wein takes her time unfolding the unique circumstances faced by her flyers, from gender-equity initiatives that educated Soviet women and launched them into the air in larger numbers than anywhere else, to the brutal purges and harsh no-surrender directives that ensured that the Red Army was fearless, or at least had to fly as if they were. She relishes the details of flight and army life, and pulls no punches describing the hardships and the dangers (spoiler alert: the vast majority of the young women she highlights die young). The telling shines when it focuses on the regiments themselves, and on the feelings and friendships of the young women, and the details of their extraordinary achievements. Descriptions of thrilling air battles, devastating losses, and illuminating mundanities (parachute silk panties, anyone? dashboard bouquets?) humanize these heroes and drive home Wein’s observations about the uniqueness of women’s experience in war. “War,” she notes, “is gendered, and it is not feminine.”

The book becomes a little more stilted when trying to cover vast amounts of larger context. While Wein is probably correct to include a good basic overview for the less historically inclined, she sometimes falls into a stilted tone when trying to cover too much too simply, or into the too-common trap of lightly condescending to the teen reader while trying to relate.

Narrator Amy Landon, while clearly skilled, doesn’t seem to be exactly the right fit for this title. Her narration, warm and kindly, seems like it might be better suited to a cozy mystery, or Fannie Flagg-esque romance. A rougher, more urgent narration might have brought the book to life more. Landon also has an irritating habit of pausing before speaking Russian names, which distances the listener from the subject. Her work on proper pronunciation deserves kudos, but a little more practice in delivery, or a Russian-speaking narrator, would have been an asset.

The result is an audiobook that is fascinating but uneven. It’s also missing the impact of the many archival photos from the print book, which is a loss. This title is definitely of interest, but not ideally suited to audio format.

A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II, by Elizabeth Wein, read by Amy Landon.  8 hours, 42 minutes. HarperAudio, January 2019.

Katya Schapiro is a Senior Children’s librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. Some of her first literary loves were audiobooks (on vinyl!), and she remains a voracious listener of radio plays and audiobooks. Originally trained as an actor, she relishes the nuances and the production values of the rapidly expanding audiobook world. Katya also blogs for Guessing Geisel, and reviews for School Library Journal.

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