Readers who know Elizabeth Wein’s award-winning books Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, both set during World War II, may be surprised by the 1930s Ethiopian setting of her warm-hearted, ambitious new novel, Black Dove, White Raven.
In fact, Wein is revisiting a place she’s written about several times before. When planning the first novel in her Lion Hunters series, The Winter Prince (1993), Wein turned to sixth-century Ethiopia to find a counterpoint for the Anglo-Saxon characters of the Arthurian legend. “My interest was sparked because, in fact, Ethiopia was one of the four great empires of the world at the time,” says the author from her home in Scotland, where she and her husband have lived since 2000.
Readers familiar with the older characters in her WWII novels might also be surprised to find that when we first meet Emilia Drummond Menotti and Teodros Gedeyon, the two narrators in Black Dove, White Raven, they are only 5 years old, sharing early memories of being strapped together in the open cockpit of a biplane.
As it happens, Wein is not one to worry much about age ranges when she spins her stories. “I tend to be very ambitious with my subject matter and don’t think too much about the ages of my main characters,” she admits with a laugh. “I just write the sort of book I wanted to read when I was 15 or 16.”
Black Dove, White Raven is certainly a book that teens (and younger readers, too) will want to read. Em and Teo share an incredible history, which brought them together as infants when their mothers were daredevil flying partners in a double act called Black Dove and White Raven. As Em recalls in that early memory of being in a plane, Teo’s mother proclaims, “Look at our kids—they are a double act, just like us.” And so they are.
The novel has the scope of a complex family saga, as the paths of the women and their children intertwine and, sometimes painfully, separate. Through the form of school essays and flight logs, Em and Teo reveal their memories of loss and love, observations about the sometimes confusing and dangerous world around them and hopes for the future.
Wein’s own interest in small planes began in high school, but it was not until she met her husband, Tim, that she took up flying. She was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, where she would eventually receive her Ph.D. in Folklore; he was working in Raleigh, North Carolina; both were bell-ringers at their respective churches. “At the time there were a lot of eligible young women ringing at Philadelphia and several eligible young men ringing in Raleigh, and the tower captain at Raleigh decided he needed to get them together!”
Wein’s first experience with “real” flying was in a small plane in Kenya, with her future husband as the pilot. “[It] was as amazing as you might imagine it to be after watching Out of Africa or reading West with the Night.”
Wein takes her flying research seriously, so for Black Dove, White Raven, she had to take a stab at wing walking. Insurance issues apparently make this a rather difficult stunt to pull off. Nevertheless, says Wein, “I actually did a half-hour wing-walking experience at an old, well-kept World War I airfield that was nothing more than grass—no runways.”
Fortunately, Wein’s venture into wing walking went smoothly. And while there is a plane accident in Black Dove, White Raven, it’s the result of a collision with a bird, not a fall. This tragedy kills Teo’s mother and leaves Em’s mother, the White Raven, devastated and with two children to raise. She does so with the help of her Quaker parents.
Eventually Momma, as both children now call her, is able to recover enough to find a way to fulfill the dream the women had been working toward: to go to Ethiopia, the home of Teo’s father, where their family can live free from the racial prejudice of late-1920s America. Momma goes first, leaving Grandma and Grandfather to bring the children to join her two years later. It’s a hallmark of Wein’s work that even minor characters feel like people we would like to know, and that’s especially true when we see the city of Addis Ababa through Em’s grandparents’ eyes.
As Teo and Em grow into adolescence on a cooperative coffee farm in pre-WWII Ethiopia, they continue to nurture their imaginative world. But outside political forces begin to transform their fantasy life into real-life challenges. As an Ethiopian citizen, Teo will be required to fight in any future wars, so Momma begins to teach both children how to fly. But danger is already closing in on this small family, and Teo and Em—the new Black Dove and White Raven—will need all their courage to survive.
Black Dove, White Raven shares with Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire the characteristics that have drawn readers so passionately to Wein’s work: fierce and powerful storytelling; strong and complex characters; an authenticity that comes with thorough and dedicated research; and, of course, a love of flying.
Deborah Hopkinson’s next book, Courage & Defiance, will be released this fall.