________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 32 . . . . April 20, 2012


Code Name Verity.

Elizabeth Wein.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2012.
343 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
ISBN 978-0-385-67654-0.

Subect Heading:
World War, 1939-1945-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4

Reviewed from Uncorrected Proof.




I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. I spent the first twelve years of my life playing at the Battle of Stirling Bridge with my five big brothers – and even though I am a girl, they let me be William Wallace, who is supposed to be one of our ancestors, because I did the most rousing battle speeches. God, I tried hard last week. My God, I tried. But now I know I am a coward. After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden, I know I am a coward. And I’m going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail.

Here is the deal we made. I’m putting it down to keep it straight in my own mind. “Let’s try this,” the Hauptsturmfuhrer said to me. “How could you be bribed? And I said I wanted my clothes back.

It seems petty, now. I am sure he was expecting my answer to be something defiant – “Give me Freedom” or “Victory” – or something generous, like “Stop toying with that wretched French Resistance laddie and give him a dignified and merciful death.” Or at least something more directly connected to my present circumstance, like “Please let me go to sleep” or “Feed me” or “Get rid of this sodding iron rail you have kept tied against my spine for the past three days.” But I was prepared to go sleepless and starving and upright for a good while yet if only I didn’t have to do it in my underwear – rather foul and damp at times, and SO EMBARRASSING. The warmth and dignity of my flannel skirt and woolly sweater are worth far more to me now than patriotism or integrity.

So von Linden sold my clothes back to me piece by piece. Except my scarf and stockings, of course, which were taken away early on to prevent me strangling myself with them (I did try). The pullover cost me four sets of wireless code – the full lot of encoding poems, passwords, and frequencies. Von Linden let me have the pullover back on credit right away. It was waiting for me in my cell when they finally untied me at the end of that dreadful three days, though I was incapable of getting the damned thing on at first; but even just dragged over top of me like a shawl it was comforting. Now that I’ve managed to get into it at last, I don’t think I shall ever take it off again. The skirt and blouse cost rather less than the pullover, and it was only one code set apiece for my shoes.

Despite these opening words Queenie, code name Verity, is anything but a coward. Her background is in the Scottish aristocracy, and thanks to her academic nature and excellent schooling, she is fluent in both French and German. As mentioned in the excerpt, she loves role-playing, and this stands her in good stead during her job as a wireless operator and later when a mission falls apart and she is captured in France by the Gestapo. Her interrogator, von Linden, asks her to write down everything she can recall about Britain’s war effort and, given the circumstances under which she must exist, Queenie agrees.

      The second main character of the novel is Maddie, a young working-class woman from Manchester who has helped her father in his bike shop and whose mechanical abilities eventually lead her to become a pilot in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). It is because of their involvement in the WAAF that the two women from such different social classes meet and eventually become the best of friends whose stories are inextricably woven together.

      To explain more of the plot of this novel would be to spoil it for potential readers. Suffice it to say that Wein takes her readers to a different time and place and makes history come alive. Wein has evidently carefully researched the roles of women in World War Two, the Royal Air Force and WAAF and their contribution to the war effort, the French Resistance and life in France during the German occupation. However, this is far from a dry historical book of facts. Wein’s characters show strength and bravery in the face of danger and incredible resilience despite what happens to them. Queenie’s code name may be Verity, but is she entirely truthful in her dealings with von Linden and the information she provides? Maddie’s expertise is as a pilot, but she exhibits bravery and intelligence in entirely different circumstances when called upon to do so. The friendship between the two main characters is such that each supports the other despite the high price which has to be paid. Their patriotism to their country and loyalty to one another are remarkable.

      Wein’s novel begins in Queenie’s voice as she writes her ‘confession’ for von Linden in the form of a diary. However she switches to the third person when relating past events and what brought about Queenie’s friendship with Maddie. Although this sounds confusing, it is not difficult to understand once readers are engrossed in the novel. Two-thirds of the way through the book, Maddie becomes the narrator, and the saga continues. Wein handles this transition beautifully, and the voices of the two women are completely different yet absolutely identifiable and understandable.

      Secondary characters are strong and provide the necessary historical background whether at an airfield in England, in the group of Resistance fighters, or in the Gestapo interrogation room. Wein is able to take what could be stereotypes and make them her own so that even the German characters and French collaborators inspire sympathy and understanding in readers despite the roles they play.

      Two highly intelligent and brave female characters remain the focus of this novel, however, and the depth of their friendship is the axis around which the rest of the action moves. It is refreshing that the novel does not highlight any rivalry between Queenie and Maddie, nor does it depend on a romantic angle to frame the two women. They are strong and heroic women who are depicted as fiercely loyal to their country and willing to do whatever must be done in order to preserve the way of life they are sworn to protect.

      How I wish I could give this book 5 stars out of 4! I occasionally encounter a novel that I never want to finish because leaving the characters and their world is just too difficult. I shall have to be satisfied in merely re-reading Code Name Verity. This is undeniably one of the best young adult books I’ve read in some time, and I do not hesitate to recommend it, not only to the age groups above but also to adults interested in the World War Two time period and not only to girls but also to male readers who will enjoy the action, the intrigue and the incredible story of just how far one might go to support and save a friend as much as their female counterparts. Don’t miss this book!

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson, who lives in Ottawa, ON, is a retired teacher-librarian and former secondary school teacher of English and French.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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