Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein – An Almost-Review by Angie Miller
“World War II,” I tell her. “Well it’s not exactly about World War II, but it’s about planes that get shot down, spying, the French Resistance, and Nazis.” I watch her eyes start to scan the shelf for another book as she absentmindedly hands me this precious jewel back, shaking her head, and I kick myself. That was the wrong hook for this kid.
“Nah,” she says. “That sounds like a boy book.”
No matter how hard I try to recant my words, she can’t be convinced, and I’m left wishing I had said something else. I wish I had told her it was about two female characters and the power of friendship. I wish I had told her how beautifully devastating the book is. I wish I had told her, No, this is is not for boys–this is a book for the strongest of girls. Girls like you. I wish I had told her this:
Sometimes friendship creates tangled labyrinths that will break your heart. Betrayal and trust are always inextricably interwoven by the complexities of reality and truth. As a young woman you have the power and strength that many not only fail to recognize, but will attempt to silence. And ultimately, there will always come a time when you must decide who you are, where you stand, and what you are willing to sacrifice .
And these are indeed the lessons that two rare and extraordinary young women working with the British Royal Air force during World War II–Queenie, a Scottish spy, and Maddie, a British pilot–will teach you. When a mission to France goes wrong, and their plane goes down, their two stories spin off into two very different directions, yet their friendship inevitably continues to weave their destinies back together.
Queenie, captured by the Gestapo and cruelly held as a prisoner of war in an old grand hotel in France, narrates the first half of the book in a series of confessional letters to the SS officer in charge. “I am a coward,” are her first words. “And I’m going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail…I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden interrogating me again.”
And, confess she does! She unravels tales of airfield locations, mission agendas, spy identities, and every other piece of information the Germans are thirsty for. Her fellow prisoners despise her and she is railed against and spit on by them, and as a reader, you too will not be quite not sure if you admire her honesty. But what would you do in the face of torture? Would you be stronger than her? She will force you to question your own strength in the face of her weakness.
But as she tells her story, she can’t help but intertwine the backdrop–which is how she and Maddie became unlikely friends, and so while her letters are truly desperate attempts to save her own life, they are also redeeming testaments of camaraderie and affection, and when you see her devotion to Maddie, you will begin to forgive her –just a little–for her divulgence and admissions of state secrets.
These are not ordinary characters. Flying planes and spying during a time when women were still expected to stay home and take care of children in skirts is almost unheard of. The technical knowledge they hold, the calculations they make, and the risks they take make strong women everywhere–and that’s you, by the way–you and me–stand up and cheer in delight. But the author, Elizabeth Wein, takes it one step further: this is not an ordinary plot.
In the second half of the book, Maddie surprisingly steps forward as the narrator, and everything you thought you knew, everything you trusted, everything you believed in is thrown on its head, and what was once an interesting book is now a mesmerizing, intricate chronicle that will make you gasp out loud. You will look around to the people closest you and insist they read this book so that you can say to them, “OH. MY. GOD. Can you believe this?” I mean, in the depths of war, does hope give any credence to those around you? Can you trust anyone in the throes of violence and torture and upheaval? These are the kinds of conversations you are going to want to have.
It is impossible to read this book once–and barely enough to read it twice. When the final chapter concludes, you are going to want to turn back to those first pages and wade trough the storyline carefully, picking at clues, reading like, well, like a spy. So just stop by, and I’ll renew it for you.
When Angie Miller is not running the middle and high school library in Meredith, NH, she raises her children, goats, dogs, and chickens, writes, or disappears into travels and hikes. She is the 2011 NH Teacher of the Year, a TED speaker, and can be followed on Twitter at @angiecmiller74 and online at www.thecontrarianlibrarian.com.