Disney-Hyperion, 2012, 343 pages
Code Name Verity is a compelling, emotionally rich story with universal themes of friendship and loyalty, heroism and bravery. Two young women from totally different backgrounds are thrown together during World War II: one a working-class girl from Manchester, the other a Scottish aristocrat, one a pilot, the other a wireless operator. Yet whenever their paths cross, they complement each other perfectly and before long become devoted friends. But then a vital mission goes wrong, and one of the friends has to bail out of a faulty plane over France. She is captured by the Gestapo and becomes a prisoner of war. The story begins in Verity's own words, as she writes her account for her captors.
I am all about "universal themes of friendship and loyalty, heroism and bravery" — those are some of my favorite themes in fiction and one of the reasons I persist in reading YA. But "a compelling, emotionally rich story" is the kind of blurb that suggests a book that will make my teeth ache. Code Name Verity has come highly recommended by many, many reviewers, yet I could not do more than appreciate it without really loving it.
I have two weeks. You'll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.
That's what you do to enemy agents. It's what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine - and I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden interrogating me again.
He has said 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. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France - an Allied Invasion of Two.
We are a sensational team.
Queenie (who will remind even her Nazi captors that she is SCOTTISH, not English, dammit!) was captured in occupied France and is now being interrogated by the Gestapo. Queenie's best friend Maddie flew the plane that landed them in France. Maddie got away, and Queenie is a dead girl writing. The first half of the book is Queenie's long confessional and personal narrative, all being read by her captors. This device allowed the reader to engage with Queenie as we are treated to her entire personal history and her friendship with Maddie and all her thoughts about her present situation, including the games she plays with her tormentors, even knowing that they are reading everything she writes. It also required a significant suspension of disbelief — if the Nazis want codes and British war secrets out of her, why let her spend days writing a long, meandering narrative?
The second half of the book loses the intense, claustrophobic feel of Queenie playing Scheherazade when it shifts to Maddie's POV. Maddie has hooked up with the resistance in France, but she wants to free her friend from the clutches of the Gestapo. Maddie's personal narrative is frankly less interesting and only exists to deliver the wrenching climax.
This is a fine World War II story, and Wein's writing is superb. From the cleverly-executed unreliable narrator to the "twist" that shocked so many readers, it's easy to see why this is such a highly-regarded YA novel. But it is a YA novel — I never really felt the terror and dread of the Gestapo, because I knew Wein would go so far and no further. The harrowing battles between the French Resistance and the Nazis likewise don't spare the reader the reality of torture and reprisals, but they are all filtered through Maddie's internal monologue, and we know that Maddie has to survive, just as Queenie's fate is spelled out for us in the beginning.
Some negative reviews have griped about too much detail about airplanes and codes. I guess planes and codes in a story about World War II spies and pilots isn't emotionally rich enough.
Have you read Code Name Verity?
Verdict: Code Name Verity gets most of its mileage from being about daring girls doing dangerous things, and as a World War II story it's quite good, if decidedly juvenile. Not too juvenile — it's grimmer than most YA. But while ideal for a teenage reader, it probably will not satisfy an adult reader of war stories.
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