Flight – Vanessa Harbour

Flight Vanessa Harbour

Apologies, I intended to post this first or in tandem with my blog tour post for the sequel Safe, but life circumstances meant its coming a little later. Flight was published in 2018 and I think it deserves to be revisited with the publication of Safe and especially for those new to the series, will make the story of Safe sit that much deeper within the reader.

Flight has the drama, the tension and the daring do and a formidable foe I crave in a historical fiction as a groom, a Jewish boy and a Roma orphan must escort a group of stallions coveted by Hitler across the mountains to safety. 

It has the makings of an epic film, one that stirs the soul, breaks the heart and lifts the spirits whilst opening eyes to the collective experience of marginalised children in Nazi occupied Europe.

Key words:

Persecuted Communities, Holocaust, Roma, Heritage, Hiding, Escape, Daring

Content Warning: Accounts of the Historical persecution of peoples, orphaning, off page child trafficked to safety, Nazi bullying, On page horse death, recounting of witnessed execution including a child, hiding with high risk to life, peril, racist and prejudiced behaviour (language is neutral though), on page execution, on page calamitous horse riding accident and injuries sustained, broken bones, guns raised against people including children, misogynistic attitudes. All within the safety of a middle grade telling.
Flight Vanessa Harbour
Cover by Anne Glenn

Jakob has been hiding with the horses of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna since Kristallnacht in November 1938 when his doctor father and nurse mother felt compelled to serve their community in crisis and never came home. 

Now in the cold of January 1945 the Nazis are on the back foot but ever fiercer to root out those who have avoided capture to finish their task we now call the Holocaust. When SS Officer Bauer shoots a priceless Lippizaner stallion in the head as a warning to grumpy widower Herr Engel, caretaker of both the horses and Jakob, the grim truth dawns that they must flee for the safety of all.

They quickly plan and begin an epic journey taking the stallions across the mountains to safety in Sanct Martin which is in the zone being liberated by American forces and are soon joined by a young Roma orphan who is determined to bear a share of the task.

Together they will not only save the stallions but find a new kind of family in each other. 

In a strange way, and please bear with, it’s end of The Sound of Music but with horses and no singing nuns.

And I don’t mean that lightly, for as much as I loved film and the great musical numbers and such, I always thought that the journey over the Alps part of the story was the most remarkable and yet totally glossed over in favour of the bonding of the family. The remarkable act is depicted with a quick chorus reprise of Climb Every Mountain accompanying the scene where cinematic folklore tells us that Christopher Plummer-who hated the film until his dying day- was absolutely furious off cameras about having to carry Kym who played Gretyl. Not exactly a testament to the audacity and courage it took to traverse the Alps with children- although of course the real Von Trapps were a tad older than their on-screen fictionalisations.

Flight captures the same cinematic epic feels of peril, the fear of pursuit and uncovering the goodness in those people who resisted and courage of those who helped and sheltered those persecuted by the Nazis coupled with a daring adventure worthy of classic childrens tales, and the series of books overall is equally inspired by a true story. 

Flight Vanessa Harbour Lippizaner Horses
Lipizzaner stallion Maestoso Basowizza in performance at Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna ridden by Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Andreas Hausberger
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The Spanish Riding School of Vienna really is a famous and prestigious institution dedicated to the conservation and training in classical dressage particularly breeding and preserving the Lippizaner breed they perform with, and the Director Alois Podhajsky in the book was the real Director and an Olympian. During World War II Austria was under Nazi Germany’s dominion thanks to Anschluss, a plebiscite that in numerous ways forced Austrians to universally vote for Nazi Germany to come and annex them to and it is true when we hear in the novel how the German high command took most of the Lippizaner breeding stock mares and foals along with other coveted breeds to Hostau in then Czechoslovakia. 

Furthermore, it is true that the School’s stallions were evacuated to a base in Sankt Martin, Austria where in January 1945 they performed for General Patton himself inspiring him to utilise the resources of the US Army in Operation Cowboy to rescue the remaining horses from the Russian advancement where they would undoubtably be slaughtered for food and the breeds die out. This story was dramatised into the 1963 Disney Film Miracle of the White Stallions which I haven’t seen and sadly isn’t available on UK Disney+. 

Vanessa notes this historical event as inspiration in an authors note at the end of the novel and how she intertwines her stories of two children who faced more than the physical struggle of leading stallions over the mountains, but the added punitive risk of being captured as they belong to two different groups of persecuted peoples. I think this is what adds a certain magic on top of the wonder.

Jakob gulped and paused. He tried to remember what they sounded like. He screwed his eyes shut but their laughter still wouldn’t come back to him.

Jakob pauses whilst telling Kizzy what happened to him and his family as Jewish Austrians

The Jewish experience in World War II has since been a source of rich storytelling because of its dark ability to both to inspire and stir empathy alongside keeping the dire warnings of the stories alive as a reminder of the capacity of humankind to be cruel. There are many myriad stories whether it be the stories of camps and survivors, the hidden, those who were given safe harbour to or in another land, those who ‘passed’ in plain sight and those who actively resisted, and indeed in those who either never lived to speak it, or lived but couldn’t speak their tale.

Jakob’s story brings together many of these factors from the experience of losing his parents and hiding during the horrors of  Kristallnacht, being sheltered in the Spanish Riding School, and secretly transported within the horse boxes later to masquerade as a nephew in the hope he is not discovered whilst the groom bare faced lies to everyone to protect him.  The close misses and memories of losses that we experience through Jakob’s warm narrative give children an ripe opportunity for empathy without being voyeuristic or worse, and further to pause upon the uncomfortable thought that,  these children are just like us today.

Herr Engel noticed her makeshift bridle. ‘You’re Roma?’ it sounded almost like an accusation.

The girl nodded’ So?’ `she held her head up high.

Roma orphan Kizzy first encounters Herr Engel and Jakob having brought the escaped stallion Pluto back to the convoy.

I was especially glad to see a positive representation of Roma people and within the historical lens, though there is clear context of the prejudice she and her people faced in 40s Austrian society there isn’t any offensive language (even the ‘g’ word that people still misuse), in the book even when it could have been historically applied such as in the mouth of Nazis and collaborators which is so very important. 

Kizzy and her family heritage are treated with respect and honour by Vanessa, Kizzy is neither fetishised as a wild and wanton Fae-like sorceress with her Roma taught survivalist ways but pays respect to her heritage with herb-lore as useful healing remedies; Neither does Ness paint her as a streetwise hardened-criminal urchin, a sort of jack the lad, Artful Dodger type that bigots assume of travelling communities, whilst depicting the cold truth that an orphaned Roma child living rough regardless of their skills, would be forced to steal at times to survive. 

The Nazi genocide against the Roma and Sinti peoples is often ignored in retelling of the Holocaust, I fear it’s because people still hold hard deep prejudices and marginalise these communities.  If we consider how homophobia and antisemetism are now recognised as terrible hate crimes, in comparison discrimination towards travelling communities is an continuance that most people prefer not to acknowledge. These peoples lacked the vocal and social power that Jewish communities deservedly utilised to demand reaction and justice in the post war years and attempts to call the omission of Roma people out were met, if at all ,with derision and ignorance largely until recent years.

Even at the time and in the aftermath Germany claimed Roma were sent to camps as punitive rather than for ideological reasons adding a double blow of associating blame and stigma to their experience. It wasn’t until 1982 that Germany officially recognised the Nazi persecution of Roma as a genocide based on race and therefore under the same model as the Holocaust. 

The clearing we were in brought back lots of memories. It was just like the one I was in when the SS came.’ Her voice dropped to a hoarse whisper and she wrapped her arms round herself , holding on tight.

Kizzy reveals why the mass grave affected her on a personal level.

As a former history teacher who has always tried to point out the hidden stories, the non-mainstream version of history, and my own family history research heavily suggesting that my husband’s paternal grandmother is likely to have been from British Romanichal heritage but settled and ‘passing’ as ‘English’ this had an personal importance to see honoured.

The experience of others persecuted in the Holocaust doesn’t lessen the horror of genocide against Jewish people (another recently discovered line of my father-in-law’s hidden heritage) but what it does bring is validate all the suffering and bring awareness of the ‘othering’ of marginalised communities both as a historical truth and something that still happens and must not be normalised today, and these hidden stories need to have their say too in order to honour those and their language, lore, heritage and knowledge lost. 

As we see both Jakob and Kizzy find a kinship in each other, that whilst their experiences differ, the fight for survival, and the persecution of a part of their identity they cannot shed nor choose is something they can both understand, and the feeling of this brings a sense of not being alone, that no longer people only seeing from the outside in, that someone is also there in the centre of the storm. This isn’t to undervalue Herr Engel, Heinz’ place as he comes to undertake a paternal role with both of them, but is an important lesson that stories of other communities only serves to create a wider community of kin, rather than divide or lessen one or another’s experience.

The history in Flight is delivered in such a way that brings an intense immersion in time and place. For those who have previously struggled to comprehend the risk to population in Nazi occupied territories, but more particularly so of those within Nazi ruled nations like Germany itself and Austria this gives a wake up call, that shared language does not equal shared values and that these people were capable of tremendous acts of courage to shelter people and both preserve things of value and resist in a context of great personal risk.

Outside of these deeper layered stories is the epic journey and the foundation of unbreakable friendship and found family that is just enough horsey to enthral those inclined and heapings of grit and peril to thrill the adventurous reader.  

With further nods to the heritage and history of classical dressage, in the names of the stallions and performance at the end, and a challenge to the gender norms that others force upon children, this is a perfect adventure story that excites, offers opportunity for empathy and equally educates by stealth. 

Absolute perfection. 

Flight is published by Firefly Press


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