There are some books with moments that take your breath away and Code Name Verity is one of them. I will admit my interest in this book was a bit of a slow burn, but it hooked me three chapters in.
A quick synopsis. The story centers on the friendship of two young British women involved in the war efforts during World War II. Like, seriously involved in the war effort. No working in the factories for these two. They choose to join the women’s air force, fly planes and become spies. Most of the story takes place during a six-week period in the fall of 1943, although we do learn about how the two met and became such good friends. The main events begin in October when a plane crashes in Nazi occupied France and the two girls are stuck. One girl, Julie or Code Name Verity, is there to complete a mission as a British spy and the other, Maddie, is trying to get back on a plane to England.
The point of view in this book is one of the most interesting things about it. The first half of the book is the story from the spy’s perspective. She is writing her story in a Nazi Gestapo prison. This is where we learn about how Julie/Verity and Maddie become friends and how they end up crashed in France. Sprinkled throughout Julie’s narrative are details about her imprisonment and her captors. She tells us about von Linden, the Gestapo commander, and his torture techniques. You learn about the two officers who keep an eye on Julie, a female German chemist, Engel, and a male French collaborator, Thibaut.
The internal workings of a Gestapo prison could be very dark, and there are places where you can feel the desperation and horror, but it is Julie, or Verity if you use her code name, and her humor and wit that keep the story light at times. Knowing she is writing her story after the events happen helps to create a little distance between the reader and some of the more difficult scenes with torture.
Elizabeth Wein does a fantastic job of capturing Julie’s loss of hope, but it is the hope that keeps you reading. She also explores the concept of truth. Julie writes that she has “told the truth.” The more I learned through the book, the more I questioned how anyone could know the truth. The whole key to the French resistance movement and the work of the British secret operations was no one knew too much of the truth because, no matter how much a spy might not want to cough up the information, with enough torture—or just the right kind of torture—a person may not be able to hold out. You’re left wondering just how much you can trust Julie and what you’ve just learned.
Then the narrator changes. The second half of the book comes from Maddie’s pilot journal. I’ll stop there for those who haven’t read the book. In the end, I cried my way to work as I listened to the last CD of this book. They weren’t tears of sadness, although there was some of that, they were more tears of “this is the end.”
As a young adult book, the language of this book was also fantastic. The young narrators use the lingo of the 40s and don’t hesitate talking boldly to the adults. I found myself wanting to use the word “beasty” all of the time. Just as with the realities of torture and the spy world, Wein also didn’t hesitate to pepper the book with language that is rough and suitable to the situation.
I’m currently trying to talk my 14 year-old into reading this book. She isn’t normally a historical fiction reader. However, the story Wein tells doesn’t feel historical, it feels like a true tale of friends—and that’s universal.