There are some books whose plots you need in your life. AMONG THE RED STARS, the new book by Gwen C. Katz, is definitely one of those. This epic historical novel about women fighting Nazis in World War II will have you feeling all sorts of empowered.
World War II has erupted in Valka’s homeland of Russia, and Valka is determined to help the effort. Flying has always meant freedom and exhilaration for Valka, but dropping bombs on German targets is something else entirely. The raids are dangerous, but as Valka watches her fellow pilots putting everything on the line in the face of treachery, she learns the true meaning of bravery.
Scroll down to read the first three chapters of AMONG THE RED STARS, and then check out some epic art by the author!
The voice on the radio spat out a few intelligible words before melting back into static. “. . . large crowd here in the City of Youth, despite the gloomy weather. They are all hoping to catch the first glimpse of . . .”
“You’re messing it up,” I told Pasha, who knelt by his radio, fiddling with its wire innards. “We’ll miss it!”
“It’ll be in the papers tomorrow.”
I gave Pasha a derisive snort. “I want to be able to say ‘I was listening when the Rodina landed.’ What good is it if I see it in the paper like everyone else?”
“When do I find out what we’re listening to?” asked my cousin Iskra, leaning over from the chair next to me. Everyone thought slight, dark-eyed Pasha and I were related, even though we weren’t. No one thought dainty, blond Iskra and I were related, even though we were.
I handed Iskra the newspaper clipping. It featured a photo of three smiling women in leather aviator caps and goggles, standing in front of a white bomber with long, graceful wings.
“Yesterday,” I said in my most dramatic radio-announcer voice, “my namesake, the remarkable pilot Valentina Grizodubova—”
“You were named after our grandmother,” Iskra interrupted.
“Do you mind? The remarkable pilot Valentina Grizodubova, the fearless copilot Polina Osipenko, and the beautiful and brilliant navigator Marina Raskova departed from Moscow in the sensational new experimental bomber Rodina.”
“That’s a good name: ‘Motherland.’ Who did they bomb?”
“No one, and you know it. They’re setting a distance record. Six thousand kilometers nonstop, over mountains and swamps and frozen wastelands and every kind of danger.”
“I heard Marina Raskova give a speech once,” said Pasha. “About how more girls should learn to fly. Her voice sounded like the color indigo.”
I said, “We’ll be able to hear her for ourselves if you ever get that radio working.”
“I’ve just about got it. . . . There.”
A fuzzy but intelligible male voice came through the radio’s homemade speaker.
“. . . still a heavy layer of cloud cover here. We won’t be able to see the Rodina until she comes in for her final descent. The crew won’t be able to see any landmarks, either. Raskova will have to navigate with a compass and sextant, like the explorers of old. Night must have been awfully lonely for her, by herself in the nose, knowing that the slightest error could leave them dozens of kilometers off course.”
“See? You didn’t miss it,” whispered Pasha.
“Shh!” I held a finger in front of my mouth.
“For those just tuning in, we lost radio contact with the Rodina about eighteen hours ago. We believe their radio stopped functioning due to the cold. It is a mark of the crew’s exceptional tenacity that they persevered in these conditions: thirty-five degrees below zero, cold enough to cause frostbite in fifteen minutes. Our ladies are, of course, bundled up in fur-lined flight suits, but I’m sure it’s still feeling nippy up there.
“Their estimated time of arrival was one hour ago. However, the weather may have caused them to alter course and delayed their landing. We expect to see these history-making heroines at any moment.”
I swallowed hard as I strained my ears for any hint about the Rodina’s fate. I felt as cold and isolated as Marina Raskova in the nose of her plane. I whispered, “They’re in trouble.”
“You’re being impatient. They’re only late,” said Iskra.
“They can’t be late!”
“Anyone can be late, even if they’re beautiful and brilliant and—”
“It isn’t them. It’s the Rodina. They already retrofitted it to hold enough fuel to make it that far. If they’re late, then . . .”
Iskra gave my shoulders a squeeze. “Baby cousin, you were just telling me what incredible pilots they are. Even if they’ve gone off course, I’m sure they can land safely.”
I shook my head hopelessly. “Grizodubova and Osipenka, maybe. But Raskova, in the nose? If they crash, she’ll be killed!”
The voice on the radio droned on with meaningless bluster. I waited all night, gnawing my fingers, for an update that never came.
In the morning, the state-owned newspaper Pravda reported nothing.
The Rodina was lost.
THREE YEARS LATER
Leaning against my airplane’s wing in the middle of our dusty airfield, I flipped lovingly through the thin, black-covered paperback. The pages were falling out and the cheap print was almost too smudged to read. A broad-winged airplane in white embossing decorated the cover. Notes of a Navigator, Marina Raskova’s autobiography. Proof of what an airwoman could do. Proof of what I could do. The flight of the Rodina had set the course of my life for the past three years.
The book’s broken binding automatically fell open to the illustration of Raskova standing in the middle of the endless snow-bound forests of the Siberian taiga. One hand held a walking stick, the other shielded her eyes as she watched the broad-winged silhouette of her plane vanish over the treetops.
When a search-and-rescue plane spotted the Rodina in a frozen swamp, my joy was short-lived. The rescue team found the pilot and copilot unharmed but grave. Grizodubova had feared for Raskova’s safety in the plane’s vulnerable glass nose, knowing that they had to belly-land, so she ordered her to bail out. The Rodina ended up kilometers away. Grizodubova and Osipenko fired their revolvers but feared that Raskova had followed the echoes instead of the shots and walked the wrong way. Worse, Osipenko had found the navigator’s emergency kit still in her cockpit. Wherever Raskova was, she had no food, no clean water, nothing but the contents of her pockets.
One long day and night passed. Planes circled low over the forest and search parties struck out in every direction, looking for any sign of the missing airwoman. But, in the end, she came to them. She stumbled into the clearing exhausted, muddy, half starved, and missing a shoe. She had survived alone in the taiga for ten days.
When the radio announced that all three airwomen were safe and sound, I screamed out loud. I grabbed Pasha and swung him in a giddy dance between the table and the overloaded bookshelf. The Rodina had flown 5,947 kilometers, shattering the previous record by more than 1,500 kilometers.
My aeroclub’s beat-up bushplane was definitely no Rodina. Not a sleek, graceful aluminum bird, but a stubby, angular machine of steel, wood, and chipped paint. But what mattered was that, for the next two hours, it was mine. And I was no Marina Raskova, just a skinny, trousered eighteen-year-old with braids tumbling down her back. But I was a real airwoman, no matter how little I looked the part. Someday I’d have a chance to prove it.
I stuffed the book into my pocket and waved when I spotted Pasha crossing the rusted steel bridge. He trotted over, a scrap of something cupped in his hands.
“Hi, Pasha,” I said, bouncing up onto the balls of my feet. “What have you got there?”
“Some foil I fished out of the canal. I’m going to make a semiconductor. It’ll improve the sound quality.”
Many Young Pioneers built radio sets, but few succeeded like Pasha. What had started out as a pencil stub, an old razor blade, and some wire had grown increasingly elaborate. A scavenged capacitor here, a speaker made from telephone parts there. To me, his ability bordered on wizardry. “Neat! We can put on some music after the flight. You ready?”
He brightened up.
I touched the propeller and spat on the ground for luck, then gave it a spin. The engine rattled to life. As I strapped myself into the pilot’s seat, Pasha started to clamber into the back. I laughed and grabbed his arm. “What, are you a Party boss and I’m your chauffeur? Sit up front.”
Pebbles pinged off the bottom of the fuselage as I taxied the little plane down the cracked earthen runway. Our aerodrome was a stretch of dirt distinguished only by a sun-bleached orange windsock fluttering from a pole. The town of Stakhanovo spread out on the other side of the canal, with its blocky soot-gray concrete buildings and its endless battery of coking ovens, each six meters tall but so narrow that a person could barely have squeezed in sideways. The ovens were kept hot twenty-four hours a day baking the impurities out of coal to make hard, spongy coke, the only fuel that burned clean enough and hot enough to turn molten pig iron into steel. Our fledgling nation had an insatiable appetite for steel. When I was younger, I had entertained an irrational fear that I would be trapped in one of those ovens.
As the aircraft lifted off, my breath stuck in my throat. This moment always caught me by surprise. No matter how many times I took off, one part of my mind was still overwhelmed by the sheer impossibility of flight. Iskra thought I was silly. She would write out the equations proving how flight worked. But Pasha gazed out the window with quiet awe. He understood.
I made a smooth circle around the little valley before rising above the foothills and into the open sky.
In the air, the plane felt more animal than machine. Through the trapezoidal window, I spotted a herd of shaggy dun-colored ponies grazing on the steppe below. The airplane reminded me of them: nearly tame, but not entirely. If I ever got too confident, the plane would remind me that it had its own ideas.
We were as high as the mountaintops now, the weathered ridge of the Urals running north and south like the bleached spine of a large and ancient monster before vanishing into clouds. The town of Stakhanovo crouched in one of the mountain crevices, its location betrayed by a plume of greasy smoke and the dark thread of the canal.
“Kalinka, kalinka, kalinka of mine, in the garden is a berry, malinka of mine,” sang Pasha absently. He often sang when he was happy. His smooth baritone was so incongruous with his timorous speaking voice.
Pasha was my favorite person to fly with. I took him up whenever I could. He didn’t nitpick my flying like my flight instructor or make sarcastic comments like Iskra, who’d grown extra snide since she got her own pilot’s license. All my life he’d been there, a quiet boy with an awkwardly proportioned face that looked like it had been assembled out of the wrong pieces. We’d each spent as much time in the other’s next-door apartment as we had at home.
I peeled away to the east, swooping in and out among towering white clouds that dwarfed the monoplane and relishing the freedom.
“Sometimes I think this is the only way I’ll ever get out of Stakhanovo,” I said. “Straight up.”
“What about Aeroflot? I thought you applied for a job with them.”
I threw back my head and groaned, but I kept one eye on the instruments, because stalling the plane while flying with Pasha would be really embarrassing. “They sent me a letter telling me that they already have one female airline pilot and they don’t need another. Can you believe it?”
“I’m sorry. I know how much that meant to you.”
“I’ve been flying for three years! How much more qualified can I get?”
“It’s just because they don’t know you. If they saw you fly, they’d change their minds. It’s too bad. I was already looking forward to seeing you in the cockpit of one of those big planes. I thought maybe you could take me somewhere.” He looked at me with his guileless blue eyes.
I smiled back but quickly looked away, not sure why I felt suddenly awkward. Pasha was my best friend, that was all. He was allowed to say something nice to me.
Glancing out the window as I fumbled for a reply, I glimpsed a speck of someone in the aerodrome. I dived for a closer look. It was a young girl, waving frantically up at us.
“Is that your sister?” I asked Pasha. “What’s she doing out here?”
Pasha’s face turned serious. “Something must be wrong. Bring us down.”
I brought the plane to a halt on the makeshift runway. Pasha’s sister ran up to the door as we got out, her pigtails disheveled, one stocking sagging down to her ankle.
“You’d better come quick,” she said. “It’s happened.”
“This war has been forced upon us, not by the German people, not by the German workers, peasants, or intellectuals whose sufferings we well understand, but by the clique of bloodthirsty fascist rulers of Germany who have enslaved the French, Czechs, Poles, and other nations.
“The Government of the Soviet Union expresses its unshakable conviction that our valiant army and navy and the daring hawks of the Soviet Air Force will deal a crushing blow to the aggressor and bring honor to the Motherland and the Soviet people.”
Pasha’s parents occupied the two comfortable chairs. His father was smoking and holding that morning’s Pravda without reading it, and his mother was twisting the dress she had been mending, her knuckles pale. My parents were there too, my mother’s brow knitted pensively, my father wearing his usual look of resignation. Iskra was sitting on Pasha’s sagging bed. Pasha and I huddled beside her. Pasha’s sister sat down at our feet and picked up an unidentifiable eyeless stuffed animal.
If I could have ignored the apprehension on everyone’s face, there was a strange feeling of normalcy to the scene. We might have been listening to a concert instead of the announcement that our world had been shattered.
“The Germans broke the nonaggression pact,” said Iskra.
“Of course they did,” said my father. “Two-timing fascists. It’s their nature.”
“This is not the first time that our nation has had to deal with an attack from an arrogant foe,” crackled the voice on the radio. “At the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, our people’s reply was war for the Motherland, and Napoleon suffered defeat and met his doom. It will be the same with Hitler, who in his arrogance has proclaimed a new crusade against our country. The Red Army and our entire nation will once again wage victorious war for the Motherland, for our country, for honor, for liberty.”
“Will we be okay?” asked Pasha’s sister, clutching her shapeless toy.
“Shh. You heard the man on the radio,” said her mother, reaching down to stroke her hair. “We’ll win. It’ll be a great victory. And in the meantime, we’ll be safe here. They’re twenty-five hundred kilometers away. When Napoleon invaded, half his army froze to death before they got to Moscow.”
“They didn’t have tanks and airplanes,” said my father. “And Hitler is not Napoleon. He doesn’t want to rule us. He wants to exterminate us. I’ve heard—”
“Stop. You’ll frighten the children.”
“We can’t hide this from them,” he said, then quieted down, because none of us wanted to miss a word from the radio.
“The whole country must now be joined and united as never before. Each one of us must demand from himself or herself and from each other the discipline, the organization, and the selflessness worthy of a real Soviet patriot in order to supply the Red Army, Navy, and Air Force with the means necessary to assure victory over the enemy.”
“The air force,” I whispered. “They’ll need pilots. Lots of pilots!” I grinned. “The daring hawks of the VVS . . .”
“I’m afraid this won’t be your big chance to join the VVS,” said my father.
I looked at him uncomprehendingly.
“There’s barely anything anything left of it,” he said. “The airplanes, thousands of all kinds, were just lined up on their airfields for the German bombers.”
“They can build more planes,” I said. “They can’t build more pilots.”
“I don’t think they’re looking for teenage girls,” said Iskra.
I raised my chin defiantly.
“The government calls upon you, citizens of the Soviet Union, to rally still more closely around our glorious Bolshevist party, around our Soviet government, around our great leader and comrade, Stalin.
“Our cause is just. The enemy shall be defeated. Victory will be ours.”
At the post office, there was a letter for me from the VVS.
I hesitated before sliding my thumb under the flap of the envelope to rip it open, suppressing my own eagerness. As long as it remained sealed, the letter might not be a rejection.
“‘Dear Valentina Sergeevna,’” I read aloud. The letter addressed me formally by my first name and my patronymic middle name, which seemed promising because the writer was talking to me like an adult, but my hope quickly withered when I read the body of the letter. “‘Thank you for your repeated interest in serving in the Red Army Air Force. While the VVS appreciates your extensive aeronautical experience, we are pleased to inform you that the state of the war effort is not, at this time, so dire that we need to put young girls at risk in dangerous front-line positions. We encourage you to put your admirable patriotism to use aiding the war effort in another way. The women of the Soviet Union are urgently needed in the work force to keep our brave fighting men supplied. This role may be less glamorous, but it is every bit as important. Additionally, we urge you not to neglect your most vital contribution to the USSR, that of a future mother. You will someday be responsible for raising the next generation, and that alone is reason enough to keep you away from the dangers of combat. . . .’”
“At least it’s a polite letter,” said Iskra as we left the post office and entered a gloomy summer drizzle. “Very personal.”
“I’m about to get personal,” I grumbled. I pulled a pack of cigarettes out of my shirt pocket, but before I could take one, Iskra grabbed the pack and tossed it into the canal.
“Hey!” I said, resisting the impulse to jump into the scummy water after it. “I waited in three lines for those!”
“And that makes you a bad Soviet,” said my cousin loftily. “I won’t let you pick up that filthy habit. We need to set an example, you know. For the adults.”
“You mean the adults who won’t let me join the VVS?” I asked. “‘Future mother.’ Ugh.”
“Mother Russia you are not,” said Iskra. She snapped her fingers. “I know who you should write to: that airwoman from the Rodina, the one who’s always talking about getting more girls into aviation. Marina Raskova.”
“Raskova?” I scratched my neck nervously. “She’s really important, Iskra. She has better things to do than talk to a kid from Stakhanovo.”
“As opposed to the commander of the VVS, who has nothing better to do.”
I had written to Raskova. Over the month since the war had broken out, I’d spent hours sitting cross-legged on the mattress that Iskra and I shared, using Notes of a Navigator as a writing surface. I wrote and rewrote, rubbing out mistakes with a dirty eraser stub until I wore holes in the paper. I just never mailed it.
We found Pasha sitting on our building’s concrete steps, heedless of the rain. His forehead was cradled in one hand, his hair sticking up at angles where he’d raked his fingers through it. I stopped abruptly, the importance of my letter shrinking away as I realized that something was wrong, really wrong.
“What’s the matter?” I asked softly.
He didn’t reply.
A slip of yellow paper was crumpled in his other hand. I reached down and unfolded his unresisting fingers, one at a time. I didn’t need to read the paper to know what it said. “Did you just find out?”
“When are you leaving?”
Iskra and I sat on the step on either side of him. Unsure what else to do, I took his hand in mine. It was soft and delicate. Not the hand of a coker. Not the hand of a soldier. Pasha had beautiful hands and I had never noticed them before.
Pasha’s quiet presence had been a constant in my life since we were toddlers stacking blocks at the state-run day care. After Iskra’s arrival, he became the tagalong kid, although he was less than a year my junior. I had taken it for granted that when I made it big as a pilot, I would leave him. It had never occurred to me that he might leave me first.
A flat-nosed towboat chugged sullenly down the canal, pushing a line of rusty rectangular barges lashed together. Pasha sat on the deck of the middle one, leaning against the side of the hopper with his arms wrapped around his knees and a battered rucksack resting beside him. The pale mountain of coke that rose above the rim of the coaming made him look very small. It was a humble way to leave for war.
I waited at the corner where the lead barge passed close to the edge of the canal, and when it appeared, I jumped onto its low, flat deck, holding my arms out for balance. I walked along the outside edge of the tow until I reached Pasha.
He said, “You weren’t at the dock. I thought you weren’t going to say good-bye.”
“Not with all those people around,” I said. I couldn’t put my finger on why that made me so uncomfortable. I didn’t have anything to say to Pasha that I couldn’t say in front of everyone, did I? “I passed your sister in the hall. She was crying.”
“She thinks I’m not coming back. It’s as good as a law of the universe for her: People who leave never come back.”
“You’ll come back,” I said with more conviction than I felt. “You’ll go. You’ll fight. We’ll repel the invasion. And then you’ll come home.”
“That’s what Iskra said too. But not everyone will.”
I wanted to point out some trait of Pasha’s that would help him survive the war, but I couldn’t think of any. Instead I sat down on the edge of the deck. The barge rode so low that I could trail the tips of my toes in the murky water. There was no one else on the line of barges except the sailors in the towboat far behind. I wondered how much of our lives Pasha and I had spent sitting side by side while the world passed us by.
Pasha told me, “You can listen to my radio while I’m gone.”
“I don’t know how it works.”
“My dad can show you.”
Uneasy silence enveloped us again, the knowledge of what lay ahead hanging over us like a storm cloud. A half-submerged tire floated by, trailing weeds and trash like an industrial-age jellyfish.
I said, “They won’t let me enlist, but they draft you. Soviet efficiency, huh?”
“Soviet efficiency,” Pasha echoed.
“I saw a story in the paper this morning. Two girls wanted to fight so badly that they stole a fighter and flew it to the front. Didn’t end well, but I’m a little jealous anyway. Maybe we could just take the old plane and fly away.”
I shrugged. “Who cares?”
Ahead, the canal curved away around a ridge and out of sight. I nodded in the direction of the bend. “This is where I get off.”
Pasha looked up at me out of the corner of his eye. “Do you have to?”
There was no Iskra around to tease me, none of the aeroclub guys who accused me of joining to meet boys. So I turned toward him. His face was suddenly close to mine. I reached out to touch his cheek, then hesitated. It was long enough that we both blushed and dropped our gaze. I gave him an awkward hug.
Pasha fumbled with his hands. “Is it okay if I write to you?”
Of course I said yes.
About Among the Red Stars
A suspenseful historical YA debut inspired by the true story of an all-female bomber unit in Russia during World War II.
World War II has erupted in Valka’s homeland of Russia, and Valka is determined to help the effort. She’s a pilot—and a good one—so she eagerly joins an all-female bomber regiment.
Flying has always meant freedom and exhilaration for Valka, but dropping bombs on German targets is something else entirely. The raids are dangerous, but as Valka watches her fellow pilots putting everything on the line in the face of treachery, she learns the true meaning of bravery.
As the war intensifies, though, and those around her fall, Valka must decide how much she is willing to risk to defend the skies she once called home.
Inspired by the true story of a famous all-female Russian bomber regiment, Gwen C. Katz weaves a tale of strength and sacrifice, of learning to fight for yourself, and of the perils of a world at war.
Check out this art inspired by the book!
Are you as excited to fight Nazis with these girls as we are? Let us know in the comments below!