Sweet Skies is a gripping historical thriller set during a fascinating period of history that will likely be unfamiliar to most young readers. Robin Scott-Elliot transports us to Berlin in 1948 during the Berlin Blockade when all routes into the city were blocked by the USSR and West Berliners were reliant on British and American planes for all their supplies.
The shadow of the Second World War is keenly felt throughout this novel. Our young hero Otto’s life has changed beyond recognition; not only has he lost one of his eyes, but he and his mother are now living in the cellar of their comfortable home while a British Brigadier and his family inhabit the upper floors. Otto’s older sister Alex has gone missing, and they are still awaiting the return of his father, a decorated pilot in the Luftwaffe, from a Russian prisoner-of-war camp. Otto’s friends have experienced similar losses – Karl has lost a leg and Ilse has lost both of her parents – and there is no escaping the destruction that surrounds them in their home city.
The American flights offer some much needed excitement for Otto, Karl and Ilse, particularly when they start dropping candy which all the children of West Berlin flock to collect (based on the real-life pilot Gail Halvorsen and the celebrated “raisin bombers”). Otto is desperate to take to the skies like his father and strikes up a friendship with one American pilot which soon sends him into the Russian side of Berlin on a deadly mission.
As with his previous novels, Scott-Elliot’s exploration of historical context is suitably nuanced: the Americans and Russians that Otto encounters are all three-dimensional characters rather than simply being painted as heroes and villains respectively. The novel also grapples with Otto’s complicated relationship with his father, whom Otto suspects of being ‘the last Nazi in Berlin.’ Above all, this is a powerful story about the aftermath of war and ‘children trying to make their lives among the ruins of the adult world’. Otto, Karl and Ilse make a compelling trio of protagonists, brave to the point of recklessness and fiercely loyal to each other. The depiction of Otto and Karl’s disabilities is worthy of special mention: others often underestimate them or try to write them off, but they do so at their peril!
The novel is full of intrigue and double-crossing, and Scott-Elliot often adds to the suspense by leaving us to join the dots, so it will suit confident readers from Year 7 upwards who enjoy historical stories with complex plots. (For instance, it would be a great book to recommend to fans of Ruta Sepetys’s I Must Betray You.) History teachers exploring the aftermath of the Second World War and the beginnings of the Cold War might also want to share this book with their classes. It is further enhanced by a helpful map, historical notes and photographs, and in his acknowledgements, the author reveals a surprising personal connection to this story which adds to its emotional power.
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