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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

Review: Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Edited to add: Printz Honor Book.

verity 200x300 Review: Code Name Verity

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.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Things Mean A Lot; Chachic.

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About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is lizzy.burns@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Ana says:

    YES TO EVERYTHING.

    This book needs to win ALL THE AWARDS.

  2. Chachic says:

    KISS ME QUICK! Yep, this one is one of my favorite reads this year too. Love Maddie and Queenie and the story of their beautiful friendship. So glad you mentioned Jellicoe Road in this review, that’s another one of my favorites.

  3. Nymeth says:

    Love this review – you managed to communicate so much about the story without giving anything away. And yes, what Ana said!

    (Also, I really really need to read Jellicoe Road.)

  4. Brandy says:

    That last paragraph made me tear up AGAIN.

    Also what Ana said. If this book doesn’t win all the awards I may lose all faith in the award committee system forever.

    You did a great job getting to the heart of the book and its excellence without revealing anything important. I’m impressed. My own review was horribly vague.

  5. Sondy says:

    My preorder should come in any day now. I love Elizabeth Wein’s other books. It sounds like her great writing persists in a totally different setting.

  6. Hannahlily says:

    Great review! As others have mentioned, it’s remarkable how you’re able to tell so much without telling anything of the plot. My absolute favorite read of 2012 so far. I hope Ana’s right and this wins all the awards!

  7. Tori says:

    I love this book so much. I’m so glad it’s getting so much positive attention. I, too, want it to win all the awards. I love this book so much that I knit a Verity sweater for Halloween, and I don’t wear orange.

  8. Jon says:

    Just bought this today, can’t wait to read it!

  9. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Ana, and by “all” the awards, I WANT AWARD POLICIES REWRITTEN SO IT CAN WIN ALL OF THEM.

    Chachic, ever since I finished reading it, that — kiss me hardy — just comes to me and i tear up.

    Nymeth, thanks, and yes, please read Jellicoe! It can be a bit confusing at first but it is so worth it.

    Brandy, agreed about tearing up and all the awards. So hard to write this review. And oh so much to talk about, in terms of the craft of this book and the writing and and and and LOVE IT.

  10. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Sondy, I haven’t read any of Wein’s other books! I need to rectify that, quickly. Let me know what you think about Verity.

    Hannahlily, I have to make sure I nominate this for the ALA awards that allow anyone to nominate a title. I don’t want this to be missed!

    Tori, so jealous of your sweater! And yes I don’t wear orange, normally, either. But Verity for Halloween. You’re brilliant.

    Jon, can’t wait to hear your thoughts

Trackbacks

  1. [...] reviewed by: Kirkus Reviews, Maggie Stiefvater, The Book Smugglers, and A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy Tagged espionage, unreliable narrators, war, women in war. Bookmark the permalink. « [...]

  2. [...] Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein Hyperion/Disney A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy: Review [...]

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