Is it cheesy to compare a book to a perfect, slow building relationship? Yeah, that’s what I thought, and I don’t care. That’s how I feel about this book. First, it stood out in a crowd, then it intrigued me, then it annoyed me, then it fixed everything, then I just wanted to speed things up, then there was the surprising moment when I just knew, and then it came to perfect fruition. I didn’t get a chance to finish Verity before I had to return it to the library. I Charlie Brown walked it to the return bin and immediately put on a new hold and finished it within days of getting it back. This book reminded me why I love to read.
That being said, I find it much harder to review books I like. It’s just harder to nail down that exact thing that makes you happy, isn’t it? I feel like I have to justify my likes more than my dislikes. Why did I like this other than I just did?
Code Name Verity is the story of two young women (I’m not sure we’re given an exact age) caught in German occupied France during World War II. One is a civilian pilot. The other a wireless operator – or more accurately a spy. Verity is our spy, taken captive by the Gestapo after she foolishly looks the wrong way to cross the street. After giving her captors a number of wireless codes, she is allowed paper to write out more information for them. She uses this opportunity to tell the story of how she came to be in France by recounting how her friend Maddie became a pilot. The reader meets Verity as Queenie, a seemingly stuck up, but actually very kind, wealthy Scot with an affinity for languages. Von Linden, the head interrogator, takes a shine to Verity, and indulges her writing eccentricities. The other prisoners hate Verity. She is a traitor, the worst possible quality in a prisoner. She is the Gestapo’s pet and it is keeping her alive.
Women’s involvement during the Second World War is not something that gets no attention. We all know about Rosie the Riveter, and if we don’t we’re looking it up, right? Right?
I visited San Diego last year. Rosie was from San Diego; the military is a huge part of the culture there, so women in the war movement is talked about a lot. There was an entire display at the museum about women in war. It covered years and levels of involvement. Some of the propaganda posters were intense.
I snapped this picture before I was scolded by a museum worker person (my gut instinct was to say Nazi, it felt tacky, so you get worker person instead). Female pilots and spies still don’t get that much attention though, so I loved the approach taken by this book.
One of the complaints I’ve read is about the amount of detail in the beginning of Verity’s story when she talks about the types of planes being flown by the English. She goes into great detail and yes, it does get a bit bogged down, but in the second part of the book – the surprise moment where the story tips to Kittyhawk (Maddie)’s perspective – we learn why all this detail is important. It gives Verity’s story credit, just like all the wireless codes, and allows her to work her way under Von Linden’s skin, even though everything she’s saying is a lie. The greatest skill of any double agent is the ability to lie so convincingly that the right people believe the lie and the more right people recognize it for what it is. The best example is when the American journalist comes in to interview a model prisoner. The amount of information that changes hands in a seemingly innocuous conversation is skillfully handled by Wein, even more so after we learn that Engel, the guard who does the translations for Von Linden, is also working for the resistance.
Verity’s section of the story is fanciful and dramatic. She spins a masterful tale to distract from the real information hidden within the pages. Even when she’s talking about something truly terrible, like the acid they want her to drink or the beheading of the French resistor, she does it in a way meant to captivate Von Linden, but also to tell the resistance where open doors are located. It’s so cleverly done, that it isn’t apparent until we’re given Maddie and Engel’s interpretation of what Verity has written.
Kittyhawk’s story is frantic and unstructured. She isn’t the girl with the grand plans. She’s a girl with skills that lead her into a job that allows few women. She just wants to fly the plane, and now she’s stuck in a tiny cubby in the top of a barn full of explosives, trying to get back to England. When she’s pulled out of the barn to work with the resistance family, under the nose of their Gestapo son, she is forced into the role usually held by Julie (aka – Queenie, Verity, Eva, Scottie).
My feels were turned up to eleven when Maddie shoots Julie. And then she just has to leave the body lying there in the mud, for days. It is heartbreaking. I know she does it because Julie asks her to, but it that actually makes it even harder. Her choices are shoot her best friend, or leave her alive to be shipped off to a concentration camp. The hardest decision I make some days is if I want one cup of coffee or two. If that scene doesn’t trigger your emotion switch, I’m not sure what will.
For a generation/culture of young adults (and older) who have never had to understand what it really means to live in war, this book is provides a unique perspective. Yes, there have been wars over the last few decades. Yes, there are people who understand exactly what war means. But for a large number of us, we don’t have to live with the day to day effects. We don’t live in fear of our homes being bombed, of power outages for cover, of food and clothing restrictions, etc. Hell, my power went out the other day and I was annoyed because I couldn’t finish my laundry. We’re a fairly blessed few generations; we don’t need to focus on the tiny details. Julie and Maddie focus on the details because everything else is so overwhelming. Julie uses her details to hide her resistance. Maddie uses the details to keep herself sane. When the rest of your life is so terribly overwhelming, the little things are a blessed escape.
This novel proves that a young adult book that contains zero romantic plotlines can still tell a successful story. This is a book about friendship over all else. Friendship pushed to the worst extremes. Friendship that survives, even if the people don’t. Not everyone will love this book. It’s slow. It’s told in small anecdotal stories. The moments of action are few and far between. It’s the story of two girls’ lives. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. I think it would make an intriguing and exciting inclusion into a high school English curriculum. Do it teachers. Just do it.