Lilian Nattel felt drawn to Soviet wartime pilot

Lilian Nattel (Allan Greenbaum photo)

Lilian Nattel felt drawn to Lily Litvyak the moment she heard of her.

It was in the early 2000s when Nattel’s husband first came across Litvyak’s story online: she was a golden-haired Soviet fighter pilot whose plane was shot down behind German lines in 1943. After that, nobody knows what happened to her.

With so little information about her on the Internet at the time, the superficial details – especially the similarities between the two women – shook Nattel. They were both short and Jewish, Nattel noticed, and they even shared the same first name.

“Why haven’t I heard of her?” Nattel, sitting in a café in downtown Toronto, recalls asking herself. “It just kind of blew my mind that this existed.”

Nattel knew then that she wanted to write a book about Litvyak. She immediately began scouring the Internet for more information, finding a few contemporary memoirs from people who knew her. But the bestselling author, whose historical fiction novels rely on deep research, just couldn’t find enough information back then.

So she set the topic aside for a while, coming back to it later, after the publication of her second novel. Now 2004, the Internet had matured enough for her to find more information – and yet, when she sat down to write it, the story just didn’t click.

“I felt like I didn’t get it,” Nattel says. “I didn’t get the place, I didn’t get the time period.”

So once again she set Litvyak aside, focusing instead on her third novel, which was published in 2012. Litvyak, of course, had not left her mind and she tried to write the novel a third time.

By this point, with a wealth of Russian-language articles online, the sophistication of the Internet had finally caught up with Nattel’s vision. She learned the Cyrillic alphabet and began using Google Translate, along with a team of translators, to decipher primary sources, memoirs, history books and interviews about Litvyak’s life.

Much of Litvyak’s story hinges on rumours. In the early 2000s, for example, someone claimed to have seen a Swiss TV interview with former Soviet fighter pilots, one of whom was an especially short woman. That had to be Litvyak, the theory goes – but how did she survive after being shot down and find her way to Switzerland?

That’s the story behind Nattel’s latest novel, Girl at the Edge of Sky, published by Random House Canada.

“The heart of this story is, what happened to her?” Nattel says. “What transformed her from an ardent Soviet citizen with a secret, whose one wish was to be a hero so she could redeem her family, who fled to the West and chose an honest life?”

Nattel’s stringent research skills and former life as a chartered accountant give her a prime background to write historical fiction. As a child of Holocaust survivors, she often skews toward Jewish subjects.

Her first novels also feature poor European Jews and laudable women: The River Midnight takes place in a fictional Polish town near the end of the 19th century, while The Singing Fire stars a poor Jewish girl living in a London ghetto.

Soviet Russia was a whole new world, but the emotional foundation – a young Jewish girl striving to succeed in a difficult world – wasn’t so foreign to Nattel.

“The real heart of this story is something nobody can know, which is why it has to be a fictional treatment,” she says. “I’d be thrilled if someone could have written a non-fiction biography of her – I’d never have written this novel. But it’s impossible.”


Lilian Nattel will be participating in a panel at the Dunedin Literary Festival in Dunedin, Ont. on  Sept. 14.