The Plot: France. 1943. Verity, a British spy, has been captured by the Nazis. “I AM A COWARD,” she explains. She has given the Nazis the wireless codes they wanted; she is now writing out her confession, explaining how and why she ended up in Ormaie in Nazi-occupied France, why she has the identify papers of Maddie Brodart, and why she is telling the truth and telling the Nazis every little thing.
How much time has Verity bought for herself? A handful of days to write her confession; and after that, what?
The Good: This book is outrageously good.
Historical fiction can be a bit like fantasy: the author has to convey a lot of information to the reader for the reader to understand the setting. Here, a book about Britain in World War II, and the war effort that involved women: the Air Transport Auxiliary, Special Operations Executive, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Verity is writing her confession for her SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden, wanting to include every last detail to buy more days, so she is thorough in what she tells. She starts in 1938 to explain just how and why Maddie, the granddaughter of a merchant, became a pilot that ended up bringing Verity to German occupied France.
As the pages go by, the reader falls into the past. The horror and disgust at what Verity has done — given the Nazis the secret wireless codes in exchange for the return of her clothes — slowly fades away. Partly it is because Verity is equally disgusted with herself, and had, as a child, thought she’d be as brave as her various ancestors such as William Wallace, and she cannot believe she hasn’t lived up to her ideals. Partly it is because, while Verity never gives direct descriptions or details because, of course, Von Linden knows what was done to her so why tell him, she gives enough sideway hints and references to burns and bruises and pins for the reader to realize that more was involved in the questioning of Verity than taking away her clothes. But, for me, what most led to my forgiving Verity is that, as she recounts her past, I can’t help but like her.
It’s as simple as that. She’s Queenie, bright and funny and loyal and if Queenie has decided that “the warmth and dignity of my flannel skirt and woolly sweater are worth far more to me now than patriotism or integrity,” the reader can at least sympathize and understand as the reader (or at least this reader) wonders just how many burns and bruises and breaks and pins the reader could withstand.
Is Verity her name? No; it’s a code name. And even in her writings, she doesn’t use her direct name, using a nickname that others gave her: sometimes Queenie, because of her posh accent and upper class upbringing complete with castle; sometimes Scottie because, as she reminds us, she is Scottish not English. Her real name? That I won’t tell you; I’ll let Queenie tell you herself.
Maddie and Queenie become friends, meeting first as wireless operators, staying in touch as their war careers take different paths, Maddie as a pilot and Queenie with the OES. “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.” This friendship, this pair — how can you not love them? Love Queenie? And one moment there is laughter in the English countryside as Queenie displays both her ability to get lost and to talk people into doing what she wants, the next the reminder that Queenie is in a Gestapo prison listening to people being tortured, clutching her dirty sweater as if it can somehow make the noise and dirt and blood go away.
Somehow, remembering a younger, more naive and sheltered girl telling another, while German bombs fall during the Battle of Britain, “‘Kiss me, Hardy!’ Weren’t those Nelson’s last words at the Battle of Trafalgar? Don’t cry. We’re still alive and we make a sensational team,” somehow, that makes Queenie hold on just a little bit longer as she writes to explain herself and what she has done.
Queenie is telling a story, under great stress, trying not to give too much away, but having to. Page after page and I wondered, is there any hope or escape for her? And Maddie, what has happened to Maddie, the pilot of the plane that brought Queenie to France?
I can tell you the pages where I literally gasped. And the pages where I cried. And cried again. It’s Queenie’s story to tell, and she has earned that right, with each article of clothing and wireless code. So, I won’t say much about what ends up happening or not happening. But when we meet in real life? Let’s sit down and talk about it all, every word.
I will say this: Code Name Verity ripped out my heart and chopped it into little pieces in front of my eyes.
As the pages turned and I realized just what Wein was doing — where she was going — how she was getting there, how Queenie was getting there — I was blown away. It reminded me of the first time I read Jellicoe Road or Going Bovine.
Because days later I am still crying. Because of the seamless craft of this book, in character, setting, writing, and plotting. Because this is about being a coward while telling the truth,and being brave while telling lies. Because it is about the power of words and of story. Oh, kiss me, Hardy. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.