As I’ve been thinking about this book, I’ve been very aware of the fact that I am white and American, and that Elizabeth Wein is white and American-born, and that this book is set in Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie and the lead-up to the Italian-Ethiopian war of 1935-6. I am far more aware of these facts than I was five years ago when I read and reviewed Wein’s earlier books set in the earlier Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum. I don’t know how modern Ethiopians would read and react to this book, nor can I claim to say how well the history has been shown here.
And yet, I know that Wein does her research and has a deep love and respect for Ethiopia and its history and culture. So I suppose all of this examination is really a declaration of biases. I am bringing my own history of being a long-term Elizabeth Wein fan, my own slight knowledge of Ethiopian and Eritrean culture, my own fears about appropriation and representation. And as with the Aksumite books, I loved this story.
Black Dove, White Raven is the story of Emilia and Teo, siblings of the heart if not blood. Teo’s mother Delia and Emilia’s mother Rhoda were the original Black Dove and White Raven, daredevil pilots who flew together all over the US. But the US is not always friendly to two women, one white and one black, raising children on their own. And so Delia dreamed of moving to Ethiopia, where Teo’s father was from. Then she is killed in a freak accident and Rhoda, Emilia, and Teo are left to find their own way to fulfill Delia’s dream.
The story itself is told in various bits Teo and Emilia have written, framed by the letter Emilia encloses when she sends all of it to the Emperor. We don’t know at the beginning of the book exactly what has happened to Teo or Rhoda, only that the Emperor is Teo’s only hope. It’s this anxiety that drives a lot of the book, as the story gradually unfolds. We see Emilia and Teo’s school assignments which reveal their pasts as well as their lives in Ethiopia, in the community at Tazma Meda. We see their imagined quests as the superheroes Black Dove and White Raven, always saving each other.
It’s Emilia-and-Teo that are really at the heart of this book. Another sensational team, although family this time. I loved them together, their shared stories and their hands making wings to greet each other.* And yet, we also see their differences. Emilia is practical, determined; she doesn’t love flying and is ashamed of that, since Rhoda and Teo love it so much. Teo is thoughtful, quick, sensitive. And he’s totally my favorite. I loved him; I loved his love for flying; I loved how he loves the Ethiopian church and how part of him comes home.
But Delia and Rhoda are also, if not at the heart, then in the bones. I found myself fascinated by the depiction of their relationship. They have led an unconventional life. Rhoda is still married to Signor Menotti, but they haven’t lived together in years. For Rhoda, Delia is her soulmate, the other half of her life. I’m not entirely sure if I read this as friendship or romantic love, but regardless, the depth of feeling is astounding. When Delia dies, Rhoda is lost too, and she has to find her way back.
One of the things I loved about this book was the feeling of the physical landscape. The mountains where the family moves are evoked with such haunting loveliness. As Emilia and Teo learn to fly, they see the country laid out beneath them. It reminded me, of course, of the descriptions of England in Code Name Verity. But the landscape also echoes through the book in a more personal way. The high plateau where Teo and Emilia land, the church near Tazma Meda shape the story. For Teo, Ethiopia is a complex place, both home and not. He is half-Ethiopian, and yet he is also American and the questions of identity that this brings up really define his journey.
And all of this is set against the backdrop of the rich history and culture of Ethiopia, proud Ethiopia who was never been colonized, a country that is modernizing rapidly and at the same time hold its ancient customs close. Ezra and Sinidu, the doctor and his wife who live at Tazma Meda, the priest of the church there, the prince who changes Teo’s future–they all are real, complicated, human people. I felt the complexities of this struggle, the contradictions that build into a moment where everything twists and nothing is ever the same.
Because war is coming. Italy under Mussolini wants to hold Ethiopia, and is prepared to do anything to conquer it. Wein brings this little-known part of history to life, in the way she does so well. When I finished this book, I was absolutely FURIOUS with Italy. The story that is told is so heartbreaking, all the more so because it actually happened. I wanted to tell the world, and I think that’s partly what this story does.
Most of all, though, it’s the story of a brother and sister, who love each other so much that they rescue each other over and over again, who find courage in each other and strength to deal with whatever life brings them.
“Are you scared?” “I am not scared.”
Book source: eARC from NetGalley, also bought
Book information: 2015, Disney Hyperion; YA historical fiction
* YOU GUYS. I’ve been saying for awhile now that hands are possibly the most important image throughout Elizabeth Wein’s books, and I’m so right.