Told as the personal recollections of sixteen-year-old "Valya," Night Witches is the story of the brave female pilots who helped the Russians defeat the Nazi invasion during World War II. Valya and her family are in Stalingrad when it is besieged by the Nazis. Her father is a pilot, MIA. Her sister joins the Night Witches, and Valya is left at home with her grandmother and mother. When she finally joins her sister in the 588th Regiment, she works hard to prove she is ready to be a pilot, too.
From the conditions in Stalingrad - children fighting in the trenches, starvation - to those on the front - frostbite, exhaustion, constant danger- the book makes clear what war is really like for those caught up in it. The deprivations, the noise and dirt, the lack of niceties we take for granted, and the loss of friends and family to enemy fire are all experienced by Valya and those around her. It also shows that the Russian people were aware that Stalin was not all that different from Hitler, with the NKVD, SMERSH, and thousands at a time that he ordered sent to the gulags.
Lasky also shows that there can be bonding and friendships that develop during times of shared danger and purpose, and that a smiling face can hide deception. The incongruous sight of deadly pilots calmly embroidering by the fire, or a sniper risking his life to save someone, make it clear that people are always more complicated than we first believe. The use of Valya's references to favorite children's books sharpens the contrast between her life during the war and the peaceful years before it came. As she tried to find a way to the airbase through the troops ringing Stalingrad, "it looms as sparkling as the Emerald City of Oz, and the frozen river is my yellow brick road." And when she is finally on her way, she feels that the "Darlings' nursery window has indeed blown wide open, and I feel myself jumping on the back of the wind."
Some readers may not associate the author of the Ga'hoole stories with her works of historical fiction, but she is a master storyteller in both types of writing. Her use of imagery helps create the atmosphere. In Night Witches, Valya's mother is a violinist and she wishes that her daughter would also have been a musician. As Valya fights in the trenches, she thinks, "So now I am playing a DP-28 machine gun. A staccato nocturne." Balancing between the tension of the bombing runs, the hopes of reunion for the sisters, and the devastation of their country by the troops, the story carries us along through all the ups and downs as if we too were borne on the wings of the Night Witches.