Sunday 10 November 2013

Code name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Electric Monkey, 2012)
Cover title: Code name Verity – I have told the truth

452 pages

Subjects: World War Two, France, Resistance, pilots, women in war, young adult fiction (Years 10-13)

Part 1 (just over half the book) is titled Verity and takes the form of entries – like diary entries, but not quite - written at a place called Ormaie in France over three weeks of November 1943. Gradually we piece together the story, which is being told by a captured female English Flight Officer who has (apparently) made a deal with a German officer to put down in writing “anything you ask, everything I can remember” – wireless codes, facts about English aircraft and air fields etc. She seems to be spilling all these secrets quite blithely; the other prisoners certainly think so, and despite her for it.

She interleaves this sequence with the story of the growing wartime friendship between two girls, Maddie and Queenie, as Maddie becomes a pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary and Queenie becomes a radio operator (and possibly something else, more secret), and with day to day accounts of what is happening to her in her captivity and her relationship with her captors, especially the German officer von Linden. She lives in a state of almost constant terror and dread, under threat of being sent to one of the worst Nazi concentration camps, but maintains a black sense of humour throughout. Her last entries describe her flight into Nazi-occupied France, soon after which she was arrested, and a horrible public execution of another female prisoner. Almost right at the end, she reveals her real name. Many aspects of her story, however, turn out to be not quite what they seem.

Part 2, titled Kittyhawk (Maddie’s code name), takes up the story from Maddie’s point of view after she has to make a  crash landing, and while she is being looked after by the local Resistance while waiting for rescue. The two stories start to merge as they realise “Verity” is being held by the Gestapo in Ormaie.

It’s a book about friendship, bravery and courage – not only the courage to face fear and stay calm and level-headed in terrible circumstances, but also the courage needed to make the most difficult of decisions, based on that friendship.

Be careful what reviews you read, because it’s a hard book to review without giving away crucial plot details. (As the NY Times reviewer below explains: "I have to review a book in which even the hint of plot summary could ruin everything."

"The pilot and the spy" in the New York Times Sunday Book Review: "This is a rare young adult novel entirely about female power and female friendship, with only the faintest whiff of cute-boy romance... A smart book about the power of female friendship is like finding Neverland." 

And one more review here of "this heart-wrenching story of spies and friendship."

What does “verity” mean?
What is true and not true in this book?
Why did Maddie do what she did when Julie called “Kiss me, Hardy”?

Author’s website:
This is Elizabeth Wein's website. She published a companion novel to Code name Verity in 2013, called Rose under fire, about a female pilot who is shot down over Germany in World War Two and ends up in a Nazi concentration camp. She has also written books set in Arthurian Britain and sixth century Ethiopia.
There is an interview with her here.

And it’s also interesting to note that she is a pilot herself.

Other books you might like:
Elizabeth Wein has listed two books that she was influenced by in writing Code name Verity. Neither of these is listed in our local library so I don’t think I’ll be able to get hold of them, but one is Le Silence de la Mer (The silence of the sea) by “Vercors” (real name Jean Bruller), a book secretly published under a pseudonym in 1942, about a French family who have to share their home with  a German officer and use silence as their only possible weapon against him.  (Verity mentions this book in one of her entries.)

Another is La jeune fille au pair (The young au pair) by Joseph Joffo, about the daughter of a Nazi official (now in prison) who works after the war as an au pair for a family of Jewish Auschwitz survivors. Both books apparently try to show German officials, not just as evil characters with no human side to them at all, but as real and complicated people striving to deal with their own perceptions of good and bad, right and wrong, honour and duty.

The character of Maddie connects Code name Verity with Rose under fire, Elizabeth Wein's book about a young American woman who comes to England in 1944 to work for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, and is captured and taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Rose under fire is a powerful book but it is a darker, bleaker read than this one. 

New Zealand connections:
I didn't know anything about the British Air Transport Auxiliary before reading this book, but during the war it was vital in delivering planes from factories to military airfields, bringing them back for repairs, and carrying out other transportation and communications duties around Britain.

It was open at first to private pilots, or to commercial pilots who were out of a job because so many routes were closed in wartime. After some opposition, its ranks were opened to women as well, but they weren’t allowed to fly into Europe until the very end of the war.

Here is a story about one of them, Maureen Dunlop.

And here is a fabulous BBC clip about the "glamour girls of the war."

There were a handful of New Zealanders in the ATA and one of them was Jane Winstone.
“After taking off on 10 February 1944 the engine of her Spitfire failed at 600 feet. The aircraft spun into the ground near Tong Castle and she was killed; she was 31 years old. Members of the ATA acted as pallbearers at her funeral, at the Church of St Joseph, Maidenhead; she was buried in a section of the local cemetery set aside for ATA casualties... Jane Winstone was one of 16 women from the ATA killed during the war.”