Posted on October 12, 2013 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
Here be spoilers.
True epics encompass large themes and heroic characters who deal with world-changing events, and in the world of young adult fiction there aren't many of these. Okay, J.K. Rowling wrote one, but like her tale of a boy wizard most YA epics are fantasy books or paranormal romances which masquerade as something much grander.
But when I came across Code Name Verity I knew I'd found that rarest of offerings for the teen reader – a true epic novel. I'd even say that author Elizabeth Wein's tale of friendship between two young British women caught up in the midst of World War II holds up quite nicely to similar adult novels, the type which might've been penned by James A. Michener, Colleen McCullough, Ken Follett or Leon Uris.
The story's told by two protagonists. The first is a confession from "Verity" (her codename), who's been caught spying for the British in German-occupied France in 1943 and is being interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo. Verity's admission is a way to buy time, even if only in small parcels, and she knows. As a spy, she has no privileges afforded to other prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. Her life is forfeit, but as long as she can tell her tale and let the Germans believe she has information they need, she'll continue to survive. Her narrative becomes a loving dissertation about her best friend, a country girl named Maddie (code named Kittyhawk) whose serving the Allied cause as a civilian pilot. The second half of the book is told from Maddie's point-of-view and deals mostly with her trying to discover Verity's fate and then rescue her from the clutches of the SS.
As both women acknowledge, had there not been a war on, they would've never met nor become friends. Verity was born to Scottish aristocracy, was raised in a castle and educated abroad. A stint at a German boarding school has made her prolific in the language and she's recruited into the world of high-stakes espionage for which she has an unusual affinity. Not only can she affect different accents, but can manifest both personalities and lives from thin air. Maddie. on the other hand, was raised by her grandparents and grew up working with her hands. In a world which belongs to men, Maddie's a talented mechanic and a skilled pilot. Both women have benefitted from the reality of war which has broken down sexual stereotypes and allowed them to excel in areas usually reserved for males. Both are aware of this, and they wonder if their independence and freedom will continue once the conflict is over?
While reading Code Name Verity, I wondered how younger readers might handle the complicated plot, themes centered around equality and independence, and the much larger historical references. Would they appreciate the awesome amount of research which Wein clearly put into this novel? Even teens with an interest in World War II probably won't have any familiarity with most of the topics addressed, and certainly not some of the literary and cultural references. But if books can provide teachable moments — and good books always will — then this really isn't an issue. The roles of women in noncombat roles working on the English homefront and behind the scenes is a fascinating peek into a part of World War II which receives little attention but is quite inspiring. And while I'd recommend the book to almost anyone, it will resonate more with young women as it wonderfully details the unique intimacy between female friends.
Verity and Kittyhawk are effusive in their love for each other, distraught over their frequent separations, and determined to protect each other during the time in human history when probably no one felt truly safe. Their story truly is, well, epic.