Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: As veteran Bookends readers know, we are never short of opinions! So let me say straight out that Elizabeth Wein’s earlier Arthurian/Ethiopian series is as innovative as it is beautifully written and, in my opinion anyway, never received the attention it deserved. Her new book, Code Name Verity (Hyperion 2012) again displays this extraordinary craftsmanship and is receiving stars everywhere. It is, in my opinion again, one of the best of this publishing year and I hope she gains both the attention and the readership she truly deserves. So pay attention people!
The book opens with the “reports” of a young imprisoned English spy. Tortured and terrified, Julie has capitulated to her Nazi captors and is telling them everything they want to know and more: radio codes, location of airfields, training, background, people. Julie is spinning out the tale, eking out each precious moment before the Nazis either kill her or send her to the concentration camps. The time, place and people vibrate with immediacy and as a reader I was grabbed by the throat and held prisoner every bit as tightly as Julie herself.
With a jarring abruptness, the book shifts narrator in the second half, switching to Julie’s friend Maddie, pilot of the plane that crash landed them both in occupied France. And it is Maddie that turns everything we thought we knew upside down and inside out and the picture truly comes into focus.
This is brilliant writing. Wein takes risks with the structure and that risk pays off, providing incredible depth to the character development, heightening tension, altering the pacing and keeping the reader guessing right up to the very end. This is a heart-wrenching and deeply tragic story but it is also a story the highlights the very best in human nature, shining a light on two incredibly brave young women and their friendship – a friendship that gave them strength and power and ultimately gives us all hope.
Cindy: Whenever I think that I’ve read every WWII story that I need to read, another one comes along and knocks me off my feet…like Tamar by Mal Peet or The Book Thief by Markus Zusak…or in this case, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. And, like those books, you’ll want to read this one carefully, paying close attention to the subtle clues that are dropped throughout, starting with the opening lines:
I AM A COWARD. I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending.
If you are strong of heart, it’s one of those books that you will immediately want to reread. I’d like to read it again by listening to it on audio. But the plot with its twists and turns is only one strength of the novel. The two narrators are very different: class backgrounds, roles within the war effort, reliability, and voice. Julie’s dangerous wise-cracking (in her written reports and directly with her captors) in the face of death made me chuckle while fearing for her safety. Whatever you do, don’t call her English. She is Scottish! The humorous bits are very welcome in a story with as much torture and tragedy as this one.
The author’s debriefing at the back of the book explains what is truthful in the novel (and what is not) and is fascinating. Among other things I learned that Wein is a pilot herself, and how research led to plot points and plot issues led to research and solutions–and in some cases–to new plot directions. Teens might opt to skip these sections, but I never do. This one was particularly rewarding. In fact, it led me to Elizabeth Wein’s website in search of a pilot photo of her (there may be one, but I got distracted). Instead, in a section called “Vintage Verity” I found photos and blog links for knitting projects (from 1940s patterns) and have proof that Wein is not only an excellent writer, but she wields a mean knitting needle (or four). Check out the photo of her in her handknitted sweater…and let me know if you find a pilot photo.
At a recent BBYA alumni party that Lynn and I held with some of our twenty-something past students, we heard complaints about how all of the good fantasy and paranormal stories are ruined by the the kick-ass heroine getting sidetracked with her love triangle angst. They think the interesting stories are all ruined with romance. I’d booktalk this with older high school teens with the hook about friendship. “What would you do to stand up for a friend? What would you risk if you knew your friend was in danger? Wait until you see what these two girls do for each other!” Besides the obvious high school audience for this book, it will make a great cross-over title for adult book clubs. Caution: the bondage cover art might make people think you are reading a Fifty Shades of Gray read-alike. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’m just back from a glorious vacation and am hardly awake, let alone able to write seriously!