Lily Litvyak was but 21 when she failed to return from one of her daring fighter pilot missions for the Soviet Air Force during the Second World War. For two years, mostly in the all-female 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, she had flown countless missions against the Nazis and had established a reputation as an incomparable fighter-in-the-sky. She was a living legend, a source of pride and inspiration.
But on Aug. 1, 1943 her crew and commander waited in vain for her plane to land back at the base after yet another encounter with the enemy.
To this day, no one knows for sure if Lily was killed in action or taken into captivity by the Nazis. The distinction is not merely a matter of historic curiosity, for Soviet law deemed prisoners of war to be traitors to the state. Many years later, an official state investigation concluded that Lily had indeed died when her plane crashed in enemy territory. And thus, 47 years after her disappearance, then-president Mikhail Gorbachev posthumously conferred upon Lily the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
This was perhaps the last irony of the many that infused Lily’s life, so artfully imagined by Lilian Nattel in her latest impressive work, Girl At the Edge of Sky. Some 18 months after Litvyak became a Hero of the Soviet Union, there was no longer a Soviet Union for which anyone could become hero. It disbanded gracelessly, shamefully on Dec. 25, 1991 with the dark secrets of its systemic brutality soon to be brought to painful light.
Nattel has said that Girl At the Edge of Sky took all her “skill in research and writing craft to bring to life this fictionalized story based on the real (Second) World War female fighter pilot.” Given that her skill is considerable and her craft formidable, the readers are the great beneficiaries. Lily Litvyak does indeed come to full animated life in a suspenseful, heart-rending story that is difficult to put down.
In effect, Nattel has written two stories and integrated them seamlessly. Each story is divided into different chronologically sequential narrative pieces – one from the time she became a fighter pilot and the other, from the time she fell from the sky behind enemy lines. Like the terraces on a hillside, each narrative piece is vital to its adjacent counterpart. To grasp the full picture of Lily’s life as depicted by Nattel, the reader must incorporate all the narrative jumps in the same manner that traversing each terrace is the only way to reach the top of the hill. It is an entirely worthy undertaking.
The characters in the Pilot sections of the book, Nattel notes, are mostly historical figures. The air battles, too, are accurate with only one modification. The details of the Prisoner sections, however, provide the fictional force that directs the readers’ hearts and minds to the inescapably larger issues of war, of politics and government, and of human dignity contending against human brutality.
Nattel’s Lily is a devoted patriot. Individual idealism and collective purpose are the driving motivations that launch her youthful decisions. But she finds herself always sorting through the increasingly dissonant contradictions of her life, which haunt her from the very outset of her service to her country.
For example, how can she reconcile the notion of an all-encompassing, caring state with the decision to arrest her father as an “enemy of the people” during the Great Purge of the late 1930s?
Lily reflects upon her father’s arrest and disappearance. “It was 1937. There had been purges before, the removal of bad elements. But this was different. First there was ethnic cleansing. Poles, Germans, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Chinese, Kurds, Koreans and Iranians were exiled to Siberia. There were other enemies of the people too. An especially large number of them were found among railroad employees, also statisticians, writers, actors, artists, astronomers, composers, weather forecasters… Those arrested were tortured for more names. Passports had to be carried at all times since having no proof of identification was sufficient grounds for arrest. Anyone with a grudge could denounce a workmate or neighbour. Conversations were reported. Jokes were dangerous. The misuse of Stalin’s name or image was a terrible crime. Anyone could be listening. They were all listening.”
Some six years later, behind enemy lines, a German police officer tries to recruit her as an informant for his sinister purposes: “There are still polluting elements hiding among us. Moral defectives. Genetic defectives. That’s why my work is so important. The future of the world depends on it. Some don’t understand this…You’ll tell me and only me what you see. Do everything they ask of you. Everything. We understand each other?”
Ultimately, the dismal behaviours she sees and experiences on both sides of the border provide clarity. Lily understands that the loyalty, obedience and individual subordination demanded by the Soviet Motherland is of a piece with that demanded by the German Fatherland. The two ideologies are flip sides of the same totalitarian coin.
Girl at the Edge of Sky is rich with history and fictional engagement. Readers learn of the horrific atrocities the Nazis committed in eastern Europe. We also learn of the abject disregard by Soviet authorities of the sanctity of individual life. Whether describing the young fighter pilot’s many riveting air battles or creating the stomach-churning tension in the young prisoner’s many perilous predicaments, Nattel is superb. Thus we see Lily being cynical and inspiring, vulnerable or hard-as-nails, trembling or courageous.
Nattel has created a work that conveys the immeasurably important message that an individual’s true stature is measured by factors more compelling than physique, gender, ethnicity, colour of skin or religion.