For the past few days, we've focused on the history and many people's reactions to historical fiction as a genre, and we haven't spent much time on the blood-pounding excitement of espionage, spy thrillers, derring-do and unlikely escapes. But now, bombs are falling, enemy aircraft has been spotted, and I want to delve a bit more into the book in terms of theme and scope -- I'll be doing that carefully, as to avoid spoilers. In many ways, that feels like there's not much I can say -- in other ways, not talking about more than the outline of the plot still leaves plenty to discuss.
Reader Gut Reaction: I talked before about getting this book and then sort of sitting and looking at it. I'm skinhead/supremacist phobic, and Nazis are nightmare figures right up there with the Thing Under the Bed. Five pages into my reading, I had a horrible free-falling feeling that swooped and chittered in my gut as I read. The first narrator spoke at length about what she was doing, and why she was writing, and I realized, "Oh, my goodness, she's already been caught."
The She remains unnamed until halfway through the novel... but you figure out some things about her pretty quickly... First, she was the victim of a plane crash, and it was just her rotten luck that she got caught, in France. Second, that they seem to think she knows something - she's a wireless operator after all. And third, she's trying to put a good face on it, being funny and wry and all, but she's a squealer of the first water, a quisling, a tattler, a Benedict Arnold. And she's writing as fast as she can.
Concerning Character: Maddie and "Queenie" are the two girls whose voices we hear in the two halves of the novel. Structurally, the style and the voice are different in both halves, as they're very different young women who've met by happenstance. Maddie is a sturdy middle-class Manchester girl - with dark curls and Jewish roots - who is mad about engines and likes to get her hands dirty, taking apart motorbikes and the like. She is straightforward, blunt, and tends to worry quietly to herself. Fey, fair Queenie is both a Stewart and a Wallace, a proud, proud Scottish girl who has been educated in Swiss boarding schools and has just started at University when the war breaks out. She grew up in a castle - Castle Craig, is a dreamer, a risk-taker, a play actor. In the same shelter when an air raid sounded, these two shared an umbrella, smokes, and secret fears, cementing a tentative friendship. Maggie -- who fearlessly flies planes but who shudders into tears at the sounds of gunfire and bombs -- and Queenie -- who speaks flawless German, wields her beauty like a knife, and fearlessly sasses her superior officers, but secretly worries about having to kill someone, growing old, or being alone in the dark -- come together in a solid friendship which will see them through the darkest hours of the War.
There are other characters in the novel - family members, loyal mentors, Royal Air Force airmen and Air Transport Auxiliary airwomen - but the looming, faceless evil, with meticulously clean hands and pips on his shoulder, is the SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden, the Gestapo agent who interrogates Queenie. Though Maddie fears doing the wrong thing, letting everyone down, and court-martial, Queenie's great fears of cold and dark and bad manicures have all faded in the face of what she has truly learned to fear: who she has become -- "I'm a regular Judas," she confesses wryly in her notes to the Gestapo. She's telling secrets -- all of them that she knows -- and she's doing it for a blanket, for the dignity of clothing, and so that they will stop punching her, groping her, and burning her with cigarettes, carbolic, and electrical wires.
And, they are going to shoot her anyway.
Recommended for Fans Of...: Older teens, and adults. (The Gestapo means there's pain, not overt, but it is there.) Also recommended, oddly enough, for those who loved Anne of Green Gables and Little Women as well as What I Saw and How I Lied, by Judy Blundell; The Machine Gunners and Fathom Five, by Robert Westall, and The Last Mission, by Harry Mazer.
Themes & Things:
“A what kind of friend?” asked Marilla.
“A bosom friend–an intimate friend, you know–a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul.” ~ Anne of Green Gables
This is a novel about war, risks, airplanes, and espionage. Mostly, though, this is a novel about... friendship.
Despite being part of a greater organization -- the ATA, the RAF -- despite being British and part of the Allied force, in many ways, both Maddie and Queenie experience isolation. Maddie, who, as a girl is maybe a bit less feminine and a bit more masculine than she "should" be; Queenie, with her upper-class accent, long, fair hair, perfect manicure, and love of the German language and culture -- both girls are essentially squared pegs in the round holes of their culture and time, and when they are thrown together, these two unlikely opposites attract, and create "a sensational team."
With the comparison to Anne Shirley and Diana Barry we see the kind of intensely supportive friendship that Maddie and Queenie have -- the "bosom-friend" kind which figures largely into books like Pride & Prejudice -- those good sisterhood friendships which are close and tender, as well as unflinching and not allowing for self-deceit and nonsense. These aren't the types of female relationships, quite frankly, that are seen in mainstream young adult fiction novels much. Remember the Bechdel Test?
/bech·del test/ n.
1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
Legion are the YA novels who fail this test - legion are the novels with female protagonists and tons of friend groups, but few are the female friendships depicted which are not singularly obsessed with stalking relationships (Readers: Disagree with me. List your "Nu-uh, this is ALL about female friendship!" YA novel choices in the comments). I hate to use the word "refreshing" about anything but an iced lime-and-cinnamon drenched watermelon, but seriously, it is really, really nice to see a novel that:
1. Has at least two girls in it
2. Who are concerned with hopes, fears, and dreams,
3. And survival. Despite there being plenty of men around.
If you are especially prescient, you might get a wispy hint of a romance that might someday bloom in the sweet by-and-by, but it's a hint, and isn't at all the novel's focus.
Cover Chatter: You've seen the British cover so far -- the girl's silhouette, the sepia tones highlighting the red of the rose she holds and the red circle around the name, Verity; the Lysander, billowing red-tinged smoke and falling, falling -- the crisply written tagline, "I have told the truth." But, what you might not have seen is the American cover.
The scratchy-looking ropes binding the girls' wrists together are symbolic - they're tied together by circumstance, by the war, by their friendship. Queenie is also tied - to chairs, and the ropes which loosely bind the girls here cut off her circulation. But what's more important than the ropes is that their hands are grasping on to each other... the white lettering on the black background is evocative and stark and for once, it's kind of hard to choose a favorite -- but for me, the plane and rose and the sepia tones give a feeling of the early forties to the British cover, and really works even that much better. CODE NAME VERITY is quite fortunate in covers, whichever one you happen to pick up. Lucky author!
Authorial Asides: Full disclosure - Elizabeth Wein is a friend, and though we've only gotten together once (by virtue of the fact that we are far too busy [READ: lazy] to travel the two hours between our homes), we actually chat now and again, and our paths cross in cyberspace, because the children's literature pool, with the help of the Web, is not as massive, wide, nor deep as it once was.
We at Wonderland have had the opportunity to talk with Elizabeth Wein once before during the Winter Blog Blast Tour in 2008 about her life in Perth and her writing process (please note: NOT A DEBUT NOVELIST).
As always, I am astounded when I find someone who writes primarily longhand, and transfers their work to a keyboard, chapter by chapter. Despite her tendency to downplay what she does workwise - interjecting the loads of laundry, trips to the children's school to bring lunches and glasses and homework, the pottering about in the yard, watching raptors - Elizabeth works darned hard, immersing herself in her characters, their societal mores, and their realities. I think of the tiny props she fashioned for herself - the knitted WAAF doll, the eensy matches, cigarettes and lipstick, the gorgeous lined wool coat (pictured on the left!) she made from a 1940's pattern, which caused many a naughty word and seam-ripping session; the maps, the flights, the reading and rereading of historical documents as well as diaries, letters, and other accounts of wartime Britain -- these all represent just a tremendous amount of research, time, creativity, patience -- and tears.
I asked about the tears -- this novel required a lot of heart, and with such an immense commitment of time and research with CODE NAME VERITY, the tears when it was done must have been both of regret and release. The author noted, "I even got tears on my last set of proofs!"
As this is a war story, there are dire moments, daring escapes, and staggering losses. You might have a sniff or two yourself while reading this, but for those who have asked, this novel is not too scary. It is heartfelt and true, and there are also plenty of things to smile about, and to keep you nail-bitingly on the edge of your seat!
A meticulously researched, note-perfect pair of voices; a feast of espionage, suspense, secrets, love and risk, CODE NAME VERITY is a triumph of friendship and courage and heart which will take your breath. It reminds me that though it is soldiers who fire the guns and generals who write out the peace accord, it's courage that ends wars.
You can find CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein out today at an independent bookstore near you!
You can also download Elizabeth's interview with Clare English on BBC's Book Cafe through the month of February - I doubt it'll be downloadable long after that, as BBC podcasts seem only available for forty-five days - sorry listen quickly! If you're in the UK, you can hear a replay on BBC Radio Scotland on Sunday, 12th Feb., 3 p.m.
The CODE NAME Blog Tour marches on. Tomorrow catch author Elizabeth Wein at Bookbabblers.