Lyudmila Pavlichenko only wanted to protect her son when she went to retrieve him from the shooting gallery, where his usually absent father had brought him. He was only 5 years old, and the foolish boor was trying to impress him with the use of a gun, no less. Well, if that is what made a “good” father, then she would be both a good mother and a good father to her son. In addition to attending her graduate studies, working to earn money, and caring for her son, she also got herself certified as a sharpshooter. Little did she know how useful that would become, how it would equip her for the battles that were to ensue on her home turf during the second World War, and how it would change the course of her life forever.
Though this novel is fictionalized, it is based very closely on the memoir and historical accounts of the life of this true heroine, Lyudmila Pavlichenko (or “Mila”, to her closer friends). While women in Europe and America were only utilized in medical or administrative capacities until very recently in the military, they were occasionally utilized as front line fighters by the Russian military much earlier on. And although these women still faced harassment and were not generally treated as equals, there were a few, such as Mila, who were actually acknowledged for their contributions, which were extraordinary. In her case, she earned her moniker of “Lady Death” as a sniper, with an official head count of 309 Germans killed during the war (and probably more, in reality).
Quinn has become another of my favorite authors, uplifting strong women in history and bringing them into our consciousness. We can now appreciate, for example, how Lyudmila Pavlichenko not only contributed so bravely toward the fight against fascism with her rifle, but she also did so with her honesty and charm. Brought to America in a student delegation to help convince the US to open a second front in Europe to support the war against the Germans, she formed a personal friendship with both Eleanor and President Roosevelt. And though she shied away from the spotlight, she did not shirk her duties when it came to speaking up for gaining support for her fellow military fighters who were out in the field trying to protect what she felt were forces against evil.
I will say, while Quinn’s other novels truly grabbed me from the first page, this one took a bit of time for me to become fully absorbed. There was perhaps a bit more detail about the ammunition, war strategies, and the layout of the stakeouts than I might’ve needed personally (my eyes may have glazed over just a bit). But the suspense definitely built quickly enough, and there were a twists and surprises that caught me off guard, for sure. By the middle I was hooked and by the last few chapters, I was 100% riveted and could not put the book down until I finished it – including the author’s notes!
Quinn’s deeply researched novels consistently highlight how hard it has been for women to be acknowledged for even the most stunning achievements. She does this while keeping us engaged, entertained, and always wanting more.
I say it again – this is the very best way to learn history! And why I loved this book.