The Story of the Night Witches, the All-Female Anti-Fascist Bomber Squad
Kate Quinn in Conversation with C.P. Lesley on the New Books Network
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When we think of World War II, we envision a catastrophe of massive proportions: millions killed in concentration camps, on the battlefield, during bombing raids and in the nuclear explosions that ended the war. But World War II can also be seen as a vast collection of small catastrophes—a dozen executions or experiments here, a casual act of antisemitism or cruelty there—committed by otherwise ordinary people who either had no moral compass to start with or lost their bearings in an environment that brought out the worst in them. That insight drives The Huntress (William Morrow, 2019), Kate Quinn’s fast-moving, compelling mystery about Nazi hunters in the decade after VJ Day. Kate joins C.P. Lesley this week on New Books in Historical Fiction.
Ian Graham, a British war correspondent, is chasing an escaped Nazi known only as die Jaegerin, the Huntress. He is determined to see her tried for her crimes, and his motives are both professional and personal: she murdered his younger brother, as well as a dozen Polish children. With the help of the intrepid Nina Markova, former lieutenant of the Night Witches and the only survivor who can identify the Huntress by sight, Ian follows his quarry’s trail across the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, in Boston, 17-year-old Jordan McBride welcomes Anneliese, soon renamed Anna—the love interest her lonely father brings home. A budding photographer, Jordan wants first and foremost to go to college, a goal that Anna supports but Jordan’s father overrules. He considers higher education unnecessary for a young woman in 1946, especially one with marriage plans in her future. But the camera does not lie, and Jordan’s photographs soon raise questions about what Anna really left behind when she fled Europe the year before. And before long, Jordan has to wonder why Anna seems to eager to get her new stepdaughter out of the house.
From the episode
“I also happened to come across the story of the Night Witches, the all-female bomber regiment of pilots that flew against Hitler’s eastern front.”
C.P. Lesley: There’s an incredible number of WWII novels coming out at the moment. I can’t tell you how many I’ve had sent to me in the last 15 months or so.
Kate Quinn: I think we’re seeing a boom there because people are becoming more and more aware than our WWII veterans are aging, and there’s an urge to hear these stories while the people who were alive to live them, and for whom they are not just stories but reality, are still around to actually tell us what the story is, and what the history is.
CPL: Good point. So what drew you to the specific story that became The Huntress?
KQ: I read a fantastic squib somewhere about the very first Nazi war criminal to be deported from the US and sent to Europe to answer for her war crimes and to be put on trial. It was a woman who had been serving as a particularly brutal camp guard in one of the women’s camps during WWII and served a very short prison sentence after the war, then happened to meet and marry an American construction worker on vacation in Austria. He took her home and she took up American citizenship and was discovered decades later as an American housewife in Queens, NY.
Her American husband and neighbors were flabbergasted—they had no idea. They insisted that she was gentle as anything, wouldn’t hurt a fly, and yet she had this terrible past, and she was deported and put on trial for it. It made me wonder—not only what it’d be like to be the person who was hunting down a woman like that, to know what she’d done and wonder where she’d gone and how to find her—but also what it would be like to be the person on the other end. To suddenly discover that someone who’d been part of your family for years, who you thought you knew and loved, had this terrible capacity for evil.
I also happened to come across the story of the Night Witches, the all-female bomber regiment of pilots that flew against Hitler’s eastern front during WWII, and as soon as I read about them I knew they had to be part of it. They’re such an incredibly badass group of ladies, so tough, so driven, so incredibly unknown—I certainly never heard about them in my history classes—and I really wanted to fit them into the story too.
“It would be foolish to assume that all bad guys, war criminals, and Nazis portray constantly as mustache-twirling two-dimensional cardboard Disney villains.”
CPL: What made you decide to tell your story through these particular points of view?
KQ: I knew I wanted multiple points of view so you could see the hunt unfold from various angles. That would give the broadest perspective on it, and also allow for the greatest amount of contrast. I wanted to write a Night Witch, and not just her postwar experiences but her wartime life as well, because that history is so thrilling and it should be widely known beyond those who are Russian enthusiasts like you and me.
As far as deciding to go with Jordan’s point of view, she was someone who could provide an intimate look at what a war criminal is like to live with. She doesn’t know who she’s living with—she has suspicions at times, but she doesn’t know for certain—and she sees a warm caring side of the bad guy, because it would be foolish to assume that all bad guys, war criminals, and Nazis portray constantly as mustache-twirling two-dimensional cardboard Disney villains. They were human beings as well, and I say that not to excuse the things they did, but to present them as being more complicated. Just because my villainess is capable of doing terrible things doesn’t mean she’s not also a warm and wonderful person to the women in her life. This sets up complications down the road emotionally for Jordan, who then has to battle those feelings when she learns the truth. I thought that was an emotional complexity that would give the story a lot of depth.
Then of course, the engine driving the plot: I knew I’d have to have a point of view from someone on the team of Nazi-hunters, or war crime investigators to use the less sensationalized Hollywood term. I chose my British fictional journalist, Ian, who was a former war correspondent and therefore has a lot of battle experience. When he gives that up after the Nuremberg trials and becomes a war crimes investigator, he really is obsessed with the hunt for bringing justice to those who have escaped it. So he allowed me to explore not just the possibility of driving the hunt forward and dropping the clues and following them across the ocean to Jordan, but also he is my opportunity to explore the themes of justice and revenge and the difference between them, and how far we go in pursuit of justice, and when we’ve gone too far.
“I hope readers will want to learn more about women of the past who have been very brave and sometimes unfairly forgotten.”
CPL: What would you like readers to take away from The Huntress?
KQ: I’m hoping they will learn a little something about women of the past who have done some amazingly brave things, the Night Witches. And also women like Jordan who became war photographers and journalists—there were some ladies who did truly astounding things during WWII whom Jordan admires and wants to be like, and I hope readers will want to learn more about women of the past who have been very brave and sometimes unfairly forgotten.
I hope, too—especially in the current climate where we are seeing the troubling rise of fascist tendencies again, fascist groups, antisemitism, how easily these things come in a wheel—I hope it makes readers think a little more seriously about what that line is between justice and vengeance, and what care should be taken that some lines are not crossed, and what consideration that should be taken to make sure the wheel doesn’t turn and these things don’t come back.