Sunday, September 29, 2013

Two women; one mission—help the Maquis foil the Nazis

I have just returned from the medieval city of Florence, where only one ancient bridge remains of the many that once spanned the river Arno. The reason? German bombing as they retreated from Italy near the end of World War II. Before leaving for Europe, I had consumed Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity in one sitting. Like the story of Florence's surviving Ponte Vecchio, it plunged me back to a time when danger and destruction were the stuff of daily life. Wein's novel boasts not one, but two heroines. "Queenie" is good with languages, Maddie with machines. Both are fascinating, resourceful, and intrepid. Although the ordeals they face as they carry out their covert missions in occupied France would make most of us cower, their fictional exploits are no more incredible than those of the actual Allied agents who inspired them. (Click here for an article on the author's research. She is a pilot herself, which accounts for much of the book's verisilimitude.)
Pilots Mona Friedlander (left) and Joan Hughes wearing parachutes for a demonstration flight for the Air Transport Auxiliary Service in which they replaced male pilots, freeing them for combat duty in World War II. January 10, 1940. (Hudson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
I hate to give away much of the plot, because it is so ingenious and hair-raising. I very much agree with Marjorie Ingalls' summation in the New York Times,
This is a rare young adult novel entirely about female power and female friendship, with only the faintest whiff of cute-boy romance. I’d tell you more about the “Usual Suspects”-meets-“If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” plot, but then I’d have to kill you. I do think “Code Name Verity” will appeal more to adults than to teenagers.
Salon's Laura Miller honed in on that theme as well:
Wein has written a puzzle novel whose cleverness never overwhelms its spirit and heart. Although published as YA (Young Adult) fiction, it’s a bit of an odd duck in the genre. Its accounts of Nazi torture and death camps are serious and frank (and, it should be added, quite true to the fates of the many brave young people, male and female, who fought for the French Resistance), which will make it too disturbing for some youthful readers. And there’s no dreamy romance, a apparent requirement in YA books for girls these days.
Instead, “Code Name: Verity” is about female camaraderie and valor. Maddie and Queenie, who meet in the service, instantly cross class divisions to become best friends. It wasn’t just romances that broke the rules during wartime, after all. Maddie marvels at Queenie’s improvisational daring and Queenie views Maddie’s piloting talents as a pure and beautiful art that transcends the dirty expediencies of war. For all the intricacies of its plotting, this novel is rooted in character.
Wein's plucky heroines have even engendered a rash of fan art, as in the samples below.
Excerpt from Code Name Verity
I AM A COWARD. 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-Hauptsturmführer 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 Hauptsturm-führer 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. 

There are eleven sets in all. The last one was supposed to buy my slip. Notice how he's worked it that I get the clothes from the outside in, so I have to go through the torment of undressing in front of everybody every time another item is given back to me. He's the only one who doesn't watch—he threatened to take it all away from me again when I suggested he was missing a fabulous show. It was the first time the accumulated damage has really been on display, and I wish he would have looked at his masterpiece—at my arms particularly—also the first time I have been able to stand in a while, which I wanted to show off to him. Anyway, I have decided to do without my slip, which also saves me the trouble of stripping again to put it on, and in exchange for the last code set I have bought myself a supply of ink and paper—and some time. 

Von Linden has said I have two weeks and that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I'm going to. Von Linden resembles Captain Hook in that he is rather an upright sort of gentleman in spite of his being a brute, and I am quite Pan-like in my naïve confidence that he will play by the rules and keep his word. So far, he has. To start off my confession, he gave me this lovely creamy embossed stationery from the Château de Bordeaux, the Bordeaux Castle Hotel, which is what this building used to be. (I would not have believed a French hotel could become so forbiddingly bleak if I had not seen the barred shutters and padlocked doors with my own eyes. But you have also managed to make the whole beautiful city of Ormaie look bleak.) 

It is rather a lot to be resting on a single code set, but in addition to my treasonous account I have also promised von Linden my soul, although I do not think he takes this seriously. Anyway, it will be a relief to write anything that isn't connected with code. I'm so dreadfully sick of spewing wireless code. Only when we'd put all those lists to paper did I realize what a huge supply of code I do actually have in me. 

It's jolly astonishing, really. 


I'm just damned. I am utterly and completely damned. You'll shoot me at the end no matter what I do, because that's what you do to enemy agents. It's what we do to enemy agents. After I write this confession, if you don't shoot me and I ever make it home, I'll be tried and shot as a collaborator anyway. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and this is the easy one, the obvious one. What's in my future—a tin of kerosene poured down my throat and a match held to my lips? Scalpel and acid, like the Resistance boy who won't talk? My living skeleton packed up in a cattle wagon with two hundred desperate others, carted off God knows where, to die of thirst before we get there? No. I'm not traveling those roads. This is the easiest. The others are too frightening even to look down. 

I am going to write in English. I don't have the vocabulary for a warfare account in French, and I can't write fluently enough in German. Someone will have to translate for Hauptsturmführer von Linden. Fräulein Engel can do it. She speaks English very well. She is the one who explained to me that paraffin and kerosene are the same thing. We call it paraffin at home, but the Americans call it kerosene, and that is more or less what the word sounds like in French and German too. 

(About the paraffin, kerosene, whatever it is. I do not really believe you have a liter of kerosene to waste on me. Or do you get it on the black market? How do you claim the expense? 1 lt. highly explosive fuel for execution of British spy. Anyway, I will do my best to spare you the expense.) 

One of the first items on the very long list I have been given to think about including in my confession is Location of British Airfields for Invasion of Europe. Fräulein Engel will confirm that I burst out laughing when I read that. You really think I know a damned thing about where the Allies are planning to launch their invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe? I am in the Special Operations Executive because I can speak French and German and am good at making up stories, and I am a prisoner in the Ormaie Gestapo HQ because I have no sense of direction whatsoever. Bearing in mind that the people who trained me encouraged my blissful ignorance of airfields just so I couldn't tell you such a thing if you did catch me, and not forgetting that I wasn't even told the name of the airfield we took off from when I came here: let me remind you that I had been in France less than 48 hours before that obliging agent of yours had to stop me being run over by a French van full of French chickens because I'd looked the wrong way before crossing the street. Which shows how cunning the Gestapo are. "This person I've pulled from beneath the wheels of certain death was expecting traffic to travel on the left side of the road. Therefore she must be British, and is likely to have parachuted into Nazi-occupied France out of an Allied plane. I shall now arrest her as a spy." 

So, I have no sense of direction. In some of us it is a TRAGIC FLAW, and there is no point in me trying to direct you to Locations of Any Airfields Anywhere. Not without someone giving me the coordinates. I could make them up, perhaps, and be convincing about it, to buy myself more time, but you would catch on eventually. 

Aircraft Types in Operational Use is also on this list of things I am to tell you. God, this is a funny list. If I knew or cared a damned thing about aircraft types I would be flying planes for the Air Transport Auxiliary, like Maddie, the pilot who dropped me here, or working as a fitter or a mechanic. Not cravenly coughing up facts and figures for the Gestapo. (I will not mention my cowardice again because it is beginning to make me feel indecent. Also I do not want you to get bored and take this handsome paper away and go back to holding my face in a basin of ice water until I pass out.) 

No, wait, I do know some aircraft types. I will tell you all the aircraft types I know, starting with the Puss Moth. That was the first aircraft my friend Maddie ever flew. In fact it was the first aircraft she ever had a ride in, and even the first one she ever got close to. And the story of how I came to be here starts with Maddie. I don't think I'll ever know how I ended up carrying her National Registration card and pilot's license instead of my own ID when you picked me up, but if I tell you about Maddie you'll understand why we flew here together.
Excerpted from Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Wein. Hyperion Books for Children. All rights reserved.


  1. Welcome back to the old grind, world traveler!
    That passage went down nicely. Her levity about such a grave situation indicates she is feeding the Germans a load of crap. The question is: How will she get out before someone makes her dead canary stew?
    An intriguing problem!

  2. Thank you so much! Maybe I can shoehorn a few trip pics in from time to time. A whirlwind from Venice to Assisi to Florence to Rome. It was now or never!!
    The book really is smashing -- and you sussed out Queenie's gambit!

  3. It is really refreshing to see a young adult novel that focuses on personal power and friendship. I think these values are important to teach emerging adults. I hope to see more stories like this for such an age group in the future!

  4. Such an interesting post! I am amazed by those women and I totally would like to know more. I think I need to buy the books as soon as possible, you really caught my interest here. Thank you.