Tuesday, July 7, 2015
ELIZABETH WEIN'S "BLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN:" A SAD LITTLE BOOK REVIEW
I love Elizabeth Wein. That's why I drove two hours each way to see her at a book signing last year. I adored ROSE UNDER FIRE and CODE NAME VERITY. The second I learned that she had a new historical YA novel (Hyperion, March 2015) coming out, I preordered it. I've read it now, and I wanted so badly to love it and to write a shamelessly glowing review of it, but I can't. Wein tells a good story - I don't think she could do otherwise if she tried - but I felt distanced from the characters as if I was seeing them through a screen. And I think that's because Wein herself is more in love with Ethiopia, where the heart of the book is set, than with either of her two main characters.
The original Black Dove and White Raven of the tale were, respectively, Delia (African-American) and Rhoda from Blue Rock Farm in Pennsylvania (Caucasian), a pair of Jazz Age, fearless, wing-walking, barnstorming young pilots who traveled around the United States in their little biplane, performing in air shows.
Oh, and each of these Wonder Women had a baby: Rhoda's daughter Emilia (Em) was eight months older than Delia's son Teodros (Teo), and the two solo women were essentially co-parents of both children. Life was wonderful and exciting, but the women chafed against the racism they encountered everywhere they went. Delia proposed a solution: that the four of them move to Ethiopia, the homeland of Teo's conveniently deceased father, a place to which she's never been but which she imagined to be race-blind. Rhoda soon comes to embrace this dream too, and they begin diligently saving money to prepare for the move. But then Delia dies in a terrible airplane encounter with a flock of birds, and Rhoda, now somehow the uncontested guardian of Teo as well as Em (the facts get a little hazy here), retreats to her parents' home where the children are cared for by her family members while she suffers a prolonged and extreme period of depression.
Meanwhile, while Em and Teo's physical needs are being met, they have no one but each other to turn to for emotional support. Together they develop a fantasy world in which the two of them are now Black Dove and White Raven, encountering comic-book-style adventures and perils from which they always emerge victorious. Eventually, Rhoda recovers from her grief to the point where she decides to pursue Delia's dream on her own: she pulls up stakes with the two children and moves to Ethiopia. But unfortunately, there are a lot of things about her newly-adopted country that Rhoda has yet to learn.
It's probably safe to assume that 1930's Ethiopia, a.k.a. Abyssinia, is not a subject about which most modern readers would have an expertise. But Wein wants us to know everything about the country as it was at that moment in time - its history, climate, geography, culture, political situation - because she so passionately wants her readers to love the place as much as she does. And the way she solves this problem is via information dumps. Over and over, people toss into their conversations the kinds of facts that people never toss into conversations, like that Ethiopia was the only African nation never to have been colonized, or that it had just joined the League of Nations, or that a lot of the guns on the street when Teo and Em first arrived in Ethiopia had been picked up at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Wein creates elaborate backstories to explain how her characters have come to be who they are, but to me, the stories were too elaborate, and by and large unnecessary. After I finished reading the book I went back to the beginning and realized that I had no recollection of most of what I had read there. I didn't care how Rhoda and Delia first met, or how Rhoda met Em's Italian father, Papa Menotti, or how Delia met Teo's father, or how and when Rhoda and Delia had first learned to fly. I just wanted to find out what happened to Em and Teo, and none of the backstory mattered to me so I forgot it as soon as I read it. And I'm an adult, and I'm generally fascinated by history, which to me suggests that a teenage reader with a shorter attention span would forget it all even faster.
It's easy to see from photographs how mesmerizingly beautiful a place Ethiopia is.
You can't possibly fault Wein for having fallen in love with it after she'd been there. Em and Teo have a lot of adventures in Ethiopia, some wonderful, some horrifying. Often their former imaginary identities as White Raven and Black Dove help them to navigate through the worst real-life catastrophes that befall them. They make a great team, and their devotion to each other is lovely to read about. But the real, in-your-face star of this show is Ethiopia itself, not Em and Teo, and I kept finding myself wishing that it were the other way around.