CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 8. . . .October 26, 2012
Betty Sweeney may only be 17-years-old, but she feels she can do something to help out the war effort. So, she lies about her age and is accepted by the Special Operations Executive to begin her training as a spy, code-named Adele. When Violins of Autumn begins, she has just dropped behind enemy lines and has orders to contact the local Resistance fighters and then make her way to Paris in order to serve as a courier. Her teammate, Denise, is a wireless radio operator, and she will transmit messages using Morse code. Within a few weeks of the opening of the novel, Adele completes several successful courier missions as well as being able to spy on a factory and pass along critical information to the local Resistance fighters before being captured by the Nazis.
Amy McAuley sets her tale in the weeks just before D-Day in June 1944. In fact, the title of the novel refers to the coded message sent into France by the BBC which signalled that D Day was imminent and Allied troops would soon be landing on the shores of France as the first step toward liberation. McAuley has evidently done her research and gives readers a good sense of what life was like both in the French countryside and in occupied Paris. The constant tension, the inability to be certain who is a friend and who is an enemy, even the ersatz coffee, all combine to place readers right beside the main character. Adele’s training as a spy was intense and thorough, and yet readers understand that, at any moment, Adele is just within a heartbeat of making a small mistake and being found out by the Germans.
Adele and Denise are, in many ways, typical young women who are interested in films, fashions, and boys and yet who both are determined to devote themselves to the cause of freedom for their country. They understand the dangers inherent in what they are doing and realize that they may be tortured and perhaps even killed for what they believe in. In this way, McAuley gives her readers main characters who value a goal and are willing to do whatever it takes in order to help achieve it. Both women grow in self-knowledge and determination within the pages of the novel.
The action is fast-paced, and more than once readers will be on the edge of their seats as Adele narrowly evades capture. Her nervous enthusiasm is infectious as she bicycles behind enemy lines, meets other agents in parks to hand over information, uses code words and passwords and does whatever is possible to thwart the Germans, including helping the local Resistance fighters to blow up roads and bridges. She knows that D-Day can’t be far away and the excitement she feels is palpable.
While this is an excellent and well-researched piece of young adult fiction, there are times when it just seems a little too easy for Adele to reach her goals. McAuley softens some of the rougher edges of the torture, for instance, and seems to have no hesitation in providing a ‘happy ever after’ ending which is something of a letdown after the more exciting action of the book. Adele also finds herself involved in a love triangle with a local Resistance fighter as well as a young American airman, and rather than add depth to the book, this seems to merely meet the ‘romance requirement’. Here, too, the problem of the love triangle is solved rather easily and in a predictable fashion.
These, however, are issues which do not detract from the novel in a major way. Violins of Autumn would be an excellent introduction to the role of women in World War II, especially if students used the novel as a springboard to do more research about the topic. As well, the novel shows just what one individual is able to accomplish against what seem to be insurmountable odds. Of course, Adele and her fellow characters did not win the war single-handedly by any means, but they show readers that even seemingly small contributions are valuable, especially in the effort to build a peaceful world in which everyone has the freedom to live and love as they wish.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.