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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lilia Litvyak of the White Lily

Those of you who remember Shomeret on Goodreads will recall that I had another Blogger blog called The Unmasked Persona's Reviews which is now static because I have no access to that Google account.  I now return to blogging , forced by adverse circumstances to make a new online life for myself, and yet somehow satisfy the reviewing obligations that I was unable to meet over the past two months.  I have learned a couple of lessons.  Being masked as a blogger is perhaps wiser, and that I perhaps should undertake fewer obligations as a reviewer.

My first review for this blog is of a book I read in January and originally obtained from The Bookplex.

In this review, I am finding myself doing something that I would never have  contemplated before I read this book.  I am creating a new sub-genre.  In television there is a genre called the docudrama.  Call Sign: White Lily by M. G. Crisci  seems to be what I'm calling a "docunovel".  There have been many examples of historical fiction that center on real personages and are biographical.  Yet these novels are written as narratives.  If there is documentation, it's usually confined to a historical note.  A novel that contains photographs and other types of documentation throughout the text is clearly of another order.  It's still fiction because there is dialogue provided in circumstances where no dialogue could have been recorded.  Some might say that Call Sign: White Lily is closer to biography than fiction, but I would insist that a biography should stick to facts and eschew dialogue that has never appeared in the historical record.  A book that contains fictionalized elements should be considered fiction. "Docunovel" is my term for a novel that also contains extensive documentation.

The dialogue of the English edition of this novel is, of course, written in English, but it has the rhythm of Russian speech which is supposed to lend it more authenticity.  I can see this argument, but I personally would have preferred the English dialogue to sound more like the language in which it's written.  There is also a Russian edition of this novel which can be found here .
An introduction recounts how Crisci became fascinated with  Lydia Litvyak, the female World War II Russian ace , and went to Russia to uncover the facts about her.  He undoubtedly drew on information provided by his Russian co-authors Valentina Vaschenko who runs a museum dedicated to the memory of Lydia Litvyak, and Yelena Sivolap, a local teacher of English who may have facilitated Crisci's contacts with Valentina Vaschenko and other Russians.  Lydia Litvyak was also known as Lilia.  She is mainly referred to as Lilia in Call Sign: White Lily.

I have a particular interest in female aviators which began with learning the story of Amelia Earhardt.  This is the first account I have read about a Russian woman aviator.

It may be that I was also interested in Lilia because although she accomplished so much, she had a tragically abbreviated life.  I am reminded of  Jhumki Basu , an educator who died of breast cancer at a young age.  I blogged about her on my previous blog last year.    Perhaps I am attracted to these women who burn so brightly for a short time. 

 Until I read Call Sign: White Lily,  I had very little concept about the role of the Russian military during World War II.  I had been taught in school that Hitler had been defeated by the Russian winter rather than the dedication and fighting spirit of Russian forces on the ground and in the air.  Russians have always fought invaders. One of the goals of author M.G. Crisci in writing this book is to educate Americans about the Russian military contribution in World War II. 

Lilia is associated with the white lily because she kept white lilies in the cockpit of every plane she flew.  I thought that this was a charming eccentricity.  Lilia believed strongly in appearing feminine.  She wore makeup and was interested in fashion.  She was widely condemned for these impulses by people who believed that a feminine woman couldn't possibly be a good pilot.  As a feminist, I believe that women should be able to make their own choices in all areas of their lives, and that Lilia had the right to her own sense of style. Those who believe that only "politically correct" choices are legitimate ones are limiting women's freedom to choose. M.G. Crisci has Lilia saying that she could put on her makeup and "take out a Messerschmitt".

There is an excellent article on the subject of women in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) by Orna Sasson-Levy  that originally appeared in Sociological Inquiry that can be accessed at Orna Sasson-Levy discusses the fact that on some Israeli bases women soldiers are actually forbidden to wear perfume, makeup or jewelry.  She also tells us that some women in the IDF  curtail their adornment as a result of harassment from male soldiers.  It is to Lilia's credit that she never surrendered to other people's views of  how she should dress or appear regardless of what was said about her.  It seems to me that  some women in male dominated professions feel that they must dress and behave like men in order to be considered competent.  Lilia Litviyak refused to embrace this attitude.

At first, Lilia belonged to a women's air regiment that the Germans called the Nachthexen or Night Witches.  See the Wikipedia article about them at Night Witches. Yet eventually, Lilia took on the challenge of becoming an ace which meant going one on one against German aces.

I was very impressed that Inna Pasportnikova , Lilia's mechanic, was considered as important as a pilot in this book.  She and Lilia were close friends. Inna Pasportnikova was the one who implemented the improvements that Lilia needed to maintain superiority over the German aces.  I have never previously read an aviation novel where a mechanic was a significant character who was important to the plot.

This was a highly unusual book that taught me a great deal about Russia during World War II as well as introducing me to a truly great heroine of aviation.  

                                          Carnival Masks courtesy of Salvatore Vuono