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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Titles similar to Black Dove, White Raven
A good piece of historical fiction is a taut balancing act, and Wein walks a high-wire in her latest. Deftly weaving in details about the Italo-Ethiopian War in 1935, she traces the stunning story of Teo and Emilia, not related by blood but as good as brother and sister, who came to live in Ethiopia in 1930, just as tensions begin to build between the free African nation and the Italians occupying neighboring Eritrea and Somaliland. Told through their essays, journal entries, flight logs, and a series of adventure stories they authored together, Em and Teo’s story is presented as an entreaty to the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, in a brazen attempt (helped along by Em’s gift of a stolen Italian plane) to guarantee their safe departure from the country after the war escalates to dangerous heights.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Teo and Em had an unconventional childhood. They grew up on the road in the U.S. with their inseparable mothers, African American Delia and white Rhoda, who performed a high-flying daredevil act as Black Dove and White Raven. The barnstorming foursome is mostly content, but Delia and Teo, whose late father was Ethiopian, face prejudice in America and long for life in Ethiopia, where Teo can be treated with respect and even honor.
Moving to Africa is a long, complicated process, but it becomes even more complicated when Delia is killed in an accident. Rhoda, utterly heartbroken by her flying partner’s death, is left to raise Teo and Em, whose Italian father is stationed in East Africa, on her own, but she still holds tight to Delia’s dream, determined to bring Em and Teo to Ethiopia to prove Delia’s idea is a good one. And at first, it is. In their new home at Beehive Hill Farm, a cooperative coffee plantation, Teo and Em have a stable community, go to school, and write extensively, from essays recounting their experiences to comics-inspired, high-flying adventure stories starring their fictional personas, Black Dove (Teo), who can render himself invisible, and White Raven (Em), who is a master of disguise and derring-do.
But the fantasy of their adventure stories can’t hold water forever, and their romantic vision starts to crack. Ethiopia is certainly better for Teo, who is not threatened with violence or prejudice because of the color of his skin, but it’s not an easy place for outspoken Em, since “it was a lot harder being a girl in Ethiopia than it was in Pennsylvania.” And though they find an easy home at Beehive Hill, elsewhere in the country they’re ferenji, or foreign.
But nothing is as destructive, of course, as the growing threat of Italian invasion and Haile Selassie’s conscription of all Ethiopian men, which puts Teo, who is Ethiopian by birth, in real danger. War really comes home to Teo and Em when Rhoda starts teaching the teens to fly on their own. After Delia’s death, Rhoda swore that Teo and Em would never pilot planes, but to protect Teo, she changes her tune: Ethiopia’s troops, armed with spears and machetes, were hopelessly unprepared for the Italian air force, and a pilot’s license means Teo would never face ground combat.
Em and Teo are beautifully well-rounded characters, and the confessional quality of the writing is the perfect vehicle for their complex, changing feelings about Ethiopia and what constitutes a home. Is it family? community? faith? country? heritage? Wein never lands too heavily on any one in particular. Rather, she emphasizes how interweaving complexities create robust but fraught lines of connection that carry tremendous power: “Spiderwebs joined together can catch a lion.” Like Em and Teo’s tangled history, Ethiopia’s is an intricate crosshatch of tradition, progress, conflict, and rich heritage, and Wein gracefully pilots both piercing stories, highlighting the unique circumstances of Ethiopia in the 1930s and the ubiquitous experience of two teens trying to find their places in the world.
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