BOOK REVIEW / Reluctant heroine on the wing: 'Angel' Anita Mason: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
FOUR DAYS before he popped the cyanide in his bunker, Hitler dispatched his test pilot, Hanna Reitsch, to deliver his deluded last orders to the air command at Kechlin. She obeyed orders, and flew this mission, as she had flown all others, heedless of danger. Anita Mason became fascinated by Reitsch, but abandoned her plan to write a fictional treatment of her life 'because of a complete lack of sympathy with the personality'. So instead of a real-life raving Nazi, she gives us the parallel career of a single-minded feminist and aeronautics fanatic she calls Freddy Kurtz, who is more occupied with causes of gender than of genocide.

Freddy gets worked up enough about her bully-boy father and his treatment of her wimpish brother Peter, with whose sexual characteristics Freddy's own clearly got mixed up in the gene pool. She adopts a plan to become a flying missionary doctor, but then loses interest in medicine and instead wheedles her way into the strictly male flight school. The men give her a hard time and her drill officer tells her she is the most disgusting sight ever to sully the parade ground. After drumming up some easy laughs in the mess by doing a penguin walk in her oversized uniform, Freddy quickly grasps that clowning will have to be her survival strategy - more Myrna Loy than Andrea Dworkin.

These diverting questions of chauvinism pale beside the larger moral issues which are gathering momentum. Freddy is fearful of the brownshirts but 'passionately she envied the certainty of their lives', and there is ever the demeanour of the dedicated girl scout and the reluctant hero about her. All she wants to do is fly those Luftwaffe planes, but, just her luck, she becomes a Reich heroine - darn. After an airshow, word arrives that Hitler wants to meet her, and Freddy is a-dither. 'Just be yourself,' advises motherly flying ace Ernst Udet, as if she were going to a ball.

For most of the war Freddy manages to avert her eyes from atrocity, but when she does at last witness the stripping of women at a death camp, she seems appropriately horrified. Yet soon she is resiliently asking, 'What do you do with information you cannot process? . . . You do what your body does with poison. You throw it out.'

This novel may not be the profile of evil which a closer rendering of Hanna Reitsch's life could have yielded, but it is an absorbing psychological study of that accommodation of evil which was a widespread German response to war. It is also a convincing portrait of a professional obsession, and what Anita Mason does best is let the ripping yarn rip and make the reader feel airborne.