Friday, April 26, 2013

Code Name Verity - Thoughts and Quotes

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein was published about a year ago (but I'm linking to the soon to be released paperback because I like the cover so much better than last year's hardcover), and after reading several glowing reviews on other blogs, I added it to my mental TBR list and finally got to it in March. I really like WWII stories, and though that seems rather sensationalist or gruesome on the face of it, I do have more thoughtful reasons. Not only are the stories of suffering and survival amazing and often inspiring, but there are so many facets to that historical time period - so many different experiences in so many different places - that I always learn more than I expected. Perhaps that's it: there is always something unexpected to discover in every WWII account, whether fiction or non-fiction. Code Name Verity is certainly no exception to my experience of finding the unexpected and learning new things in WWII literature!

So I came to this story with just a little bit of foreknowledge since the reviews I had read were careful to avoid spoilers. All I knew as I started reading was that it was an amazing story of friendship and involved flying. To be perfectly honest, I almost gave up on it, and even told a friend who likes YA literature not to bother, because at the outset it seemed to be only a thinly veiled propaganda in support of women in combat, to which I am categorically opposed. Take this quotation, for example:
"Maddie cowered next to him, her arms over her head, listening to the hideous rattle of the gunner sucking air into blood-filled lungs. Queenie slapped her.
'Get up, girl!' she ordered. 'I won't have this. I'm your superior officer giving orders now. Get up, Brodatt. If you're scared, do something. See if you can make this gun work. Get moving!'
'The shell needs to be loaded first,' the gunner whispered, lifting a finger to point. 'The Prime Minister don't like girls firing guns.'
'Bother the Prime Minister!' exclaimed the superior officer. 'Load the...gun, Brodatt.'" (65-66)
But I kept reading, and found this rebuttal late in the book (Maddie, Brodatt, and Kittyhawk all refer to the same young female pilot):
"'It is a pity we cannot keep you, Kittyhawk,' said the man whose house it was. 'You were born to be a soldier.'
Huh. Makes me quite puffed up with pride and yet fills me with scorn all at the same time - what rubbish! I wasn't born to be a soldier. There's a war on, so I'm delivering airplanes. But I don't go looking for adventure or excitement, and I jolly well don't go around picking fights with people. I like making things work. I love flying." (270)
So my first objection was resolved. But then there were the moral dilemmas the two friends, Maddie and Queenie, faced by their involvement, however direct or indirect, in the war effort. Let me clarify that I do believe that WWII was a just and necessary war, but the atrocities of war are not meant to be faced by women. Maddie and Queenie realize this as they talk about their fears and their roles of pilot and special intelligence officer.
"'Not doing my job properly,' Maddie explained. 'Failing to live up to expectations.'
'A bit like my fear of killing someone,' Queenie said, 'but less specific.'
'It could include killing someone,' said Maddie.
'It could.' Queenie was sober now. 'Unless you were doing them a favor by killing them. Then you'd let them down if you didn't. If you couldn't make yourself. My great-uncle had horrible cancers in his throat and he'd been to America twice to have the tumors taken out and they kept coming back, and finally he asked his wife to kill him, and she did. She wasn't charged with anything - it was recorded as a shooting accident, believe it or not, but she was my grandmother's sister, and we all know the truth.'
'How horrible,' Maddie said, with feeling. 'How terrible for her! But - yes. You'd have to live with that selfishness afterward, if you couldn't make yourself do it. Yes, I'm dead afraid of that.'" (77)
"'I'm not blameless,' said Maddie. 'Every bomber I deliver goes operational and kills people. Civilians. People like my gran and grandad. Children. Just because I don't do it myself doesn't mean I'm not responsible. I deliver you.'
'Blond bombshell,' Queenie said, and sputtered with laughter at her own joke. Then she began to cry." (165)
I will try to avoid spoilers also, so I can't say more about the moral dilemmas other than the fact that they become even more intense and personal as the narrative progresses.

In spite of these initial hesitations, however, I must say that I soon became thoroughly captivated by this story. It is amazingly well-crafted - right up there with Lord Peter mysteries by Dorothy Sayers, in my mind. It's not a mystery, per se, but the truth is only revealed slowly, and there were several plot twists that I did not expect. The story-telling device is unique, but not difficult to follow. The writing style was not particularly noteworthy, but neither was it annoying (a welcome relief), and there were several passages that I found particularly moving.
"'I'm looking for verity.'...
'Truth,' I said at last, in English.
'Truth,' she agreed...
'Verity,' I said in English...Then gasped: "'Truth is the daughter of time, not authority.'" And: "'This above all, to thine own self be true.'" I gibbered a bit, I confess. 'Verity! I am the soul of verity.' I laughed so wildly then, that the Hauptsturmfuhrer had to clear his throat to remind me to control myself. 'I am the soul of verity,' I repeated. 'Je suis l'esprit de verite.'" (131)
"Now they were over the ghostly white cliffs of eastern Normandy. The Seine's loops shone like a great unwinding spool of silver mesh off the port wingtip. Maddie gasped a the river's inadvertent loveliness, and all at once she found herself spilling childish tears, not just for her own blessed island, but for all of Europe. How could everthing have come so fearfully and thoroughly unraveled?
There were no lights over France; it was as blacked out as Britain. Europe's lamps had all gone out." (157)
Then, as usual, I found fascinating bits of WWII information, such as the perpetual use of Daylight Savings Time in England during the war (apparently this was true in America, too).
"In fact Maddie didn't fly at night for a while after she'd clocked the hours and had her logbook stamped, and she had a difficult time keeping in practice because she used it so little. Since 1940 we have not come off daylight-saving at all, and in summer it is double, which means for a whole month it doesn't get dark till nearly midnight." (139)
Even with all my mixed impressions as I read this book, I would definitely recommend it to an older teen or adult reader. The moral perplexities would be too intense for a younger reader, in my opinion. Is it an amazing WWII story? Yes, absolutely! The author's research is evident, and she has written a very plausible, though fictional, tale. It is incredibly well-crafted, and I do love a well-crafted story where all the pieces fall into place one by one. Do I agree with the actions of the characters? No, on principle I don't, but I can recognize and sympathize with the impossible situations and moral conundrums with which those who opposed the evils of Nazi Germany were faced.


Anne said...


I read this book a few months ago. (Like I said, we seem to have very similar tastes in books!) I was glad to have read it, and I have (cautiously) recommended it to my daughter Faith. We're currently studying WW II.

I was going to ask if you'd read The Book Thief, but then found that you reviewed it several years ago. In some way Code Name Verity reminded me of that book, and I think I ought to re-read it.

Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

I loved it, though I agree with the moral complexity. In fact, I should reread it.

Heather VanTimmeren said...

Anne, I did really like The Book Thief, though I don't remember feeling so conflicted over its issues. I've wanted to re-read it, but just haven't made the time for it yet.

Amy, for a few days after I finished Code Name Verity, I kept picking it back up and reading earlier passages to clarify how things fit. It's one that I will reread eventually, too, if only to enjoy the well-crafted story again now that I know how it ends.

So many books, so little time...