“We’re in the Soup Together”: A Review of Elizabeth Wein’s Black Dove, White Raven by Judy Jester
I fought with my brother tooth and nail when we were kids. We’d often seek to build an alliance with my sister to exclude the other, cleverly titled the “We hate John” or “We hate Judy” club, depending on who’d been able to sway her. Whoever was on the outs would then join the brainchild of my eldest brother, the “We Hate People Who Hate People” club – irony completely intended. We’re all great friends now, but my students affirm that this animosity was not limited to my siblings. So I was thrilled to read of a brother/sister relationship that was much more loving though that’s not what drew me to it in the first place.
A few years ago, I’d read Wein’s unforgettable Code Name Verity and then her follow-up, Rose Under Fire. Both were riveting accounts of female pilots during World War II. The plotlines so compelling and the characters so well-drawn that when I saw Wein had a new entry in what she’s dubbed the Young Pilots series, I knew I had to read it. It did not disappoint.
Just like her earlier works, Wein sucks us right into the action on the first page. “It is a waste of time trying to pass Teo off as Italian. I pretty much burned that bridge when I stole a plane from the Italian Air Force.” Who is Teo? Why would passing as Italian work to their advantage? And why and how does one go about stealing a plane? We read to find the answers in chapters, alternatingly narrated by Emilia, the thief from the first page, and Teo, her foster brother. We learn about their unconventional mothers, their move to Ethiopia after the tragic death of Delia, Teo’s mother, and their attempts to avoid getting mired in the Italian invasion of their new homeland in the late ‘30s.
Black Dove, White Raven gets its title from the names Delia and her partner, Rhoda, gave themselves for their flying circus. Teo and Em took them on too for their alter egos in the stories they wrote, stories that featured daring deeds of do that eventually gave them the courage to tackle what they most feared.
One of Wein’s greatest strengths is her characterization. She creates believable people to populate her world. Rhoda, Emilia’s mother, is devastated by her best friend’s death. She was injured in the same accident and is hospitalized for a week afterward. No one told her or the children of Delia’s fate. Em explains,
But Momma figured it out. And so did we, that first night that we had her back. I think we figured it out because for the first time ever – it was just Momma and me and Teo all together in the strange bed. We weren’t sandwiched safely between anybody. We were all by ourselves on each side of Momma, a strange pale ghost of herself, wearing a bruise like a purple raccoon’s mask, lying on her stomach and shrieking into the pillow as if we weren’t even there.
“What am I going to do?” she choked wildly. “What am I going to do?”
That’s how we knew that Delia wasn’t coming back. (20)
Until this point and eventually afterward, Rhoda is unstoppable. Any problem that can’t be solved by pluck and plain hard work is met with charm, a trait her daughter inherited.
Though intimidated by flying and especially of landing, Em can be brazen when dealing with others, especially if it means rescuing Teo. Here she saves him from someone urging him into military service.
“Colonel Augustus,” Em said with her winsome smile, “don’t you owe Momma and Delia a favor? Don’t you owe them twenty-five dollars for putting your name on a poster?”
I couldn’t believe that she’d remembered that. She was being White Raven, distracting the enemy so Black Dove could go invisible again. I did Matteo’s trick of looking off into an empty corner of the ceiling while Em looked Colonel Augustus straight in the eye. (57)
Teo is Em’s polar opposite. While she has an uncanny knack for navigation, his skill is in the pilot’s seat. Where she can be impetuous and love costumes, he seeks to fade into the background though he always seems to know just what to do when it counts.
Their bond only becomes stronger when they realize that they can’t always rely on the adults around them. As small children, they developed a code to comfort each while in flight. Three squeezes of a hand meant “Are you okay?” The reply – four squeezes – “I am not scared.”
Eventually, they’d say in the face of adversity, “We’re in the soup together.” And how lucky we are that they were. Though I didn’t go looking for filial love, I’m so glad I found it. You students will be too.
Judy Jester is an 8th grade English teacher at Kennett Middle School in Landenberg, PA and a co-director of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project at West Chester University. She blogs with two colleagues at http://thirdandrosedale.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter at @judyjester.