by Steve Sheinkin
|Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein
Both CODE NAME VERITY and BOMB are set during WWII. The first is historical fiction, the second is creative nonfiction. Both the setting and the genres are dear to me. Both books were meticulously researched, and both books held me spellbound to the end.
CODE NAME VERITY is told in the first person present tense. An unnamed woman is a prisoner-of-f. She is a spy for the UK (not British, but Scottish – a point she insists on), who landed in a small town in Nazi-occupied France, and got caught almost immediately upon arrival because she looked the wrong way when she was crossing the street. She is writing an account of everything that happened leading up to her being caught, from the very beginning of her involvement in the war effort. When she finishes that account, she is quite sure the Nazis will no longer have any use for her, which means she will be killed. In the pages she scrawls, she describes at length how Maddie, a British girl, came to learn to fly an airplane and wound up joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as a radio operator. Events conspired to place Maddie in the chair at the airstrip when a damaged plane called in, “Mayday, Mayday…” It was a young German pilot who was so lost, he thought he was landing in France, rather than England. Maddie quickly enlisted the help of another WAAF wireless operator, nicknamed Queenie because of her superior attitude. Queenie was upper-class, educated in Switzerland, and fluent in both German and French. Following Maddie’s directions, Queenie talked the pilot through a safe landing, and then, when he was taken prisoner, she interrogated him. The tense experience binds Maddie and Queenie together. They talk about the ten things that most frighten them. We learn Maddie’s words as she moves from being a radio operator to actually flying military planes. We come to know Maddie so well, it feels obvious that the person writing these pages, the prisoner of the Nazis, is in fact Maddie. But then we learn it’s Queenie, instead, and the reason so much intimate knowledge of Maddie enriches the account is because Queenie loves Maddie. Queenie writes these pages as much as a tribute to her valiant friend as an effort to stall her own death. We learn how the two young women wind up in France, one jumping out of the plane because it might crash-land, and the other staying in the plane to the end. Queenie suffers from the fear that Maddie died in a crash. She suffers from the shame of writing information the Nazis want. She is tortured by her guard Fräulein Engel and the German office von Linden. She finally ends her story.
And suddenly we are in Part 2, told in first person present tense. But the narrator now is Maddie herself, and we learn that she landed that damaged plane safely and that she is now stuck in France, hiding in a barn, hoping to find a way back to England, and worried sick about her friend Julie, which is Queenie’s real name. As various attempts to get Maddie on a plane back to England fail, she becomes mobilized into subversive action against the Nazis. She learns that Julie is a prisoner in an old hotel that has been taken over by the Nazis. She learns that Fräulein Engel, Julie’s tormenter, is really an allied sympathizer who in the end saves Julie’s many pages and turns them over to Maddie. It turns out that nothing Julie wrote was true. She didn’t, in fact, give the Germans any secret information. And she revealed information about the Nazis and her own location in a round-about way to Maddie as she read those pages. Julie played a role, very well, and kept herself alive by doing it. But when she is being transferred to a new prison (or, more probably, to her execution spot), she gets killed. I won’t say how, because how is what makes this book such a powerful heart-breaker, and if you haven’t yet read it, I won’t spoil it for you.
So many things we learn in the first part of the book are revealed as false in the second part. But we don’t feel tricked, because the author gets us so deeply inside Julie that the revelations only make us say, “Of course.” This is the mark of a master story-teller. I couldn’t put this book down.
BOMB doesn’t have two main characters, or even one. BOMB is the story of how a range of intelligent and largely well-meaning men (and all were, indeed, men – though some women were involved in ancillary roles) came together to build the first atomic bomb. It deftly weaves together the individuals, giving their backgrounds and the relevant factors that led them to be willing to join the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in New Mexico – the secret enclave where the bomb was developed. We come to understand why some of those men betrayed the United States by giving information to the Soviets; they feared that the bomb’s being in the hands of only one nation would lead to too much of an imbalance of power, and they admired the philosophy (if not the actuality) of communism. The tension builds in this book as the war in Europe and Asia claims more lives and it becomes clear (or so it seems) that Germany is in the race to build an atomic bomb. One of the most compelling parts of the whole story is the remarkable bravery of the Norwegians who blew up a factory in Nazi-occupied Norway – a factory that was producing heavy water, which the Germans would use in building the bomb. Their goal was to stop progress on building such a devastating weapon, and they suffered tremendous cold, great hunger, and the fear of almost definite death in carrying out their operation. True heroes. The other characters in this story, though, are all responsible for building the bomb – which is a very different matter from stopping the Germans from building it. And, once the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and a second on Nagasaki, they recognized the blood on their hands. Would Japan not have surrendered without dropping those bombs? It is an unanswerable question, of course. But Japan was starving and its supply of weapons was depleted. In this book we see that so much effort was put into building the atomic bomb that the momentum to drop it on someone – to show the world that the USA was that powerful – to beat the Soviets at such a development – to justify all the expense put into the project – all that momentum nearly blinded those in charge to the moral issue of causing the deaths and suffering of so many Japanese civilians.
As it turned out, the Germans did not, in fact, make progress in the race to build the bomb. The Russians did, however, but only because they had stolen the blueprints from the Americans. Perhaps the bomb would have been developed by someone else at some point; scientific developments often arise nearly contemporaneously in multiple places independently. But the fact is, it was America that developed it and that dropped it on other human beings. The scientists involved in the Manhattan Project objected to further development of new bombs, in particular, to the hydrogen bomb. But President Truman didn’t listen to them. And nuclear proliferation is the result. The book ends honestly, which is a difficult thing to do when the blame for the untenable position the world is in rests squarely on our own beloved country. It tells how if only one half of one percent of all the atomic bombs on earth today were detonated, the dust and smoke resulting from them would block enough sunlight to make the planet colder and darker for a decade, halting agriculture and causing widespread starvation. This is the predicament we are in.
Which book is better? This is like comparing apples and oranges, or diamonds and emeralds. Both books reveal how complex are the decisions people have to make in times of war. Both are respectful of the strengths and weaknesses of humanity. I love CODE NAME VERITY. It made me love the characters. It made me cry for them. But BOMB reveals an important truth that desperately needs to be faced, or we are doomed. I wish I didn’t have to pick. I do so reluctantly. I vote for BOMB.
– Donna Jo Napoli
And the Winner of this match is……
This is a very tough match because, as with LIAR & SPY vs. SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, this one is worthy of being in the final round. Moreover, I’m not terribly optimistic about either of these books returning as the Undead winner. Not that each book doesn’t have great fans, but I expect WONDER or THE FAULT IN MY STARS to take that honor, and if there’s an upset in the making then I think it’s more likely to come from the middle grade quartet of Applegate, Lin, Schlitz, or Stead. And then there’s those wacky frog scientists who may get wind of TEMPLE GRANDIN and MOONBIRD. I’m happy to see BOMB move forward—it’s the last remaining member of Team Nonfiction. As for CODE NAME VERITY, I’ve just learned that it has been named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; I hope it wins.
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
With both books so similar in their common goal for our generation to have an understanding of World War II, I cannot think of a better pair of books to commence Round 2 of this year’s battle. Ever since I read last year’s finalist, Countdown, by Deborah Wiles, the topic of nuclear weapons has been of great interest to me. To compare the two books is both an incredibly easy and hard task for me to do, as I hold them both quite dearly to my heart. BOMB provides a more factual look of World War II. The topic of nuclear weapons in general is something that I believe is important to have knowledge on, and this book teaches this while grabbing the readers’ attention and interesting them further. Code Name Verity provides a more fictional insight about World War II.Elizabeth Wein weaves a fascinating, complicated, and enthralling story. With gut wrenching plot twists and nail biting cliffhangers, Code Name Verity is a novel that will be treasured for many years to come. Choosing between the two novels is something that would be incredibly difficult for me to do, and I can only imagine how hard Judge Donna Jo Napoli’s decision must have been. But with all due respect, I happen to disagree with her choice. Although BOMB was an amazing book that I will truly never forget, fiction books like Code Name Verity that glue my eyes to the pages are by far my favorites, and Code Name Verity exceeded all of my expectations. From the enchanting writing, to the fascinating plot, and the loveable characters, the clear winner of this match for me is Code Name Verity.
– Kid Commentator GI