Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler's Aces by Lyuba Vinogradova and Arch Tait (translator)

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Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler's Aces by Lyuba Vinogradova and Arch Tait (translator)

Category: History
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: You will be surprised by how leaden and earthbound this book about remarkable female fighter pilots can be.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 352 Date: April 2016
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 9780857051950

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If you picture a wartime fighter ace in your mind, chances are it will hold to a few certain characteristics. The chutzpah on the face of a Han Solo, a fluffy pilot's jacket perhaps, the swagger of a person who's faced and dealt death and come out the other side only stronger, someone who can carry off the look of pilot's goggles – and whatever your visual impression, pretty much certainly a male. But consider the Soviet war machine, facing the Nazis easily absorbing Ukrainian territories and closing on Moscow with surprising rapidity. This is a country where all jobs are gender neutral, and where young girls fresh out of school had been building the Moscow Underground stations. No wonder, then, that that place and that cause were the locations for the world's first, and apparently, only female air regiments.

So it's a major pity that this book just failed to bring any of that uniqueness to life. I first thought there might be a disparity between what I wanted and what I got from the preceding maps, that show the ins and outs of Nazi encroachment in far too much detail. It was obvious this would not be a general read for the layman, and we'd not got to the contents page. And so it proved, through a dense (and then some) read that I really wanted to enjoy, but was prevented from engaging with at every step.

I don't like national stereotypes, but this smacks to me of a Russian book. There is a huge cast, the priorities it has seem to be particularly Russian, and it feels most off-kilter in its approach, seeming to have edited bits out that to me would seem essential. The narrative is very awkward, giving us so many instances of small colour (the girls disagreeing with their initial assignments in the regiments when first arriving at their barracks, etc) it loses all sight of the big picture. So I certainly failed to get the charisma of the navigator ace that ran the whole She-Bang, and there should have been more about the women after the war, especially as we get hints of her NKVD career affecting everything and everyone during action and since. I was swamped with detail about what and who went where and did what.

Only occasionally did things take flight (pun intended) – the Amazonian warrior nearly shot for desertion after being too good to get captured, the behaviour of the men when the women joined their companies, and so on. This strikes me as a subject that can easily bear an academic volume (and this one, however segregated the notes etc are, is certainly thorough enough for the historian), but one that cries out for a much lighter touch. I would easily see these people as greater than women – gender-free, not earthbound, and certainly having more gung ho and derring-do that I have. But they never even became characters to me – they remained awkward Soviet names on a page as grey as the cloudbanks they so easily pierced. I hate to say that I could only have wished for a much greater tribute to bring them to life than this.

I must still thank the publishers for my review copy.

The Devils' Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 by Roger Moorhouse is the most detailed look at what allowed Hitler and Stalin, previously joint signatories of peace treaties, to be in that situation.

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Buy Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler's Aces by Lyuba Vinogradova and Arch Tait (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler's Aces by Lyuba Vinogradova and Arch Tait (translator) at Amazon.com.


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