The cover of this book haunted me for months. The woman looked just like Lana Turner, and so my first impression was that it was a novel about the Golden Years of Hollywood. I wasn’t really interested about that, but my eyes kept being drawn to it on the shelves. Finally I picked it up and had a closer look. It was actually about a Russian woman pilot in WWII. The blurb sounded way more intriguing than I suspected, and about the same time more evidence of missing woman pilot Amelia Earhart was being recovered. Anyway, that’s why you don’t judge a book by it’s cover.
Sapphire Skies opens with the recovery of a downed WWII Russian Yak-1 fighter plane. These were the planes flown by women pilots in the Soviet Air Force, flown so skillfully that the German flyers called them Night Witches, flying in deadly and swift in their little wooden planes to shoot down some of its best pilots. The recovered Yak-1 belongs to Natalya Azarova, an ace fighter pilot who was suspected to have defected to the Germans after her plane was show down and she disappeared. Her former lover, and commanding officer, Valentin Orlov, rushes to the site – he has waited for her, dead or alive, since the war.
Sapphire Skies is a beautifully written book that crosses time between the war and the present day, giving a detailed portrait of Stalin’s Russian and the Russia that Putin presided over in 2000. This is the Russia that young Australian woman Lily retreats to following the death of her fiance. Her story becomes entangled with that of Natalya as the mystery of the pilot’s death unravels. Alexandra knows her subject intimately – she is Australian, of Russian parents, and has written a prequel to Sapphire Skies called White Gardenia. She writes elegant prose with passion and conviction, and creates characters that linger with you long after the book is done. But what is even more enthralling is that Natalya, and her lover Orlov, really existed.
Lydia Litvyak was the inspiration and the wellspring for Alexandra’s novel. She was pretty and young (only 21 when she died) and a scourge of the skies. She shot down at least 12 planes by herself, the record for a female fighter pilot, and when she was shot down, her body was never recovered. This led to all sorts of speculation, including that she was seen in a German concentration camp and may have escaped to Switzerland, where she married and had children. None of this has ever been proved – her mechanic Inna Pasportnikova never believed it and led a search for her plane that lasted 36 years and led to the recovery of her body. Satisfied that Lydia had been found, Gorbachev awarded her Hero of the Soviet Union.
Her commanding officer, Alexei Solomatin, for whom she often flew as wingman, was killed in front of his company and Lydia wrote to her mother of her devastation, having only realised after his death how much she loved him, although it had been obvious he loved her. She became increasingly more reckless and daring and shrugged off injuries she sustained.
Like Lydia, Natalya wears make up and perfume in the air, and is admired as much for her beauty as her flying skills. Both are rebellious and driven by their love of flying, but Natalya’s romance with her flying ace is more fulfilled, and it is he who survives and never gives up hope that she will return. (No spoilers here, you find out pretty much right away that Orlov survives Natalya).
What I love is when a book grabs you enough that you cannot put it down until it is finished, and then sends you off on a quest to know more. Tracking down Lydia is a given, because she was the inspiration for Natalya, but I also found another forgotten chapter of women’s aviation history called Fly Girls, now unforunately out of stock at Amazon. This DVD details the 1000+ women who joined the USAF in WWII, as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) and logged up 60 million miles in the air test piloting planes and teaching male recruits to fly. None of them were permitted to engage in combat, but 38 died in service. A book – Women Heroes of WWII – is available at Amazon.
It’s a hidden aspect of women’s history well worth discovering, but start with Sapphire Skies, as I did. It’s a beautiful read and you will never forget the enchanting and brave Natalya.