I have spent a good portion of my life avoiding all literature and movies that take place during World War II. I’m an emotional and empathetic person, and I just can’t deal with it! I was forced to read Night in middle school, and to watch Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan before I was out of school. I can’t take it! It’s too much abject and terrible misery happening all at once, all over the world. So I’ve actively avoided anything set in the period. Until recently. I realized as I began this novel that it was the 4th WWII era novel I’ve read in as many years. It seems I can tolerate the time period if the war is in the periphery rather than the main event. First, there was Atonement, which pretty much ruined my life while I was reading it. Fuck You, Ian McEwan. You kill me every time you cruel, heartless bastard.
In the last two years, I’ve read The Book Thief (amazing, amazing book. READ IT!) and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (also very good), and now this. These books were about women, which might be why the bulk of the violence is on the outskirts of the story.
Code Name Verity is the story of two girls. Maddie and Julie. Maddie is from the North of England, and she starts the war working in her grandfather’s motorcycle shop. But she gets the itch to be a pilot, and as war efforts continue to require more and more people, she gets her chance. She ferries broken planes and healthy pilots around the airbases of England in the Air Transport Auxiliary. Her friend Julie is Scottish, well-bred, and is involved in Secret Ops. Forgive me if I get some of these military names wrong; I have no capacity for remembering the difference between Special Forces and Secret Operations, etc.
The girls encounter each other several times throughout their work on airfields. Their first meeting is when Julie and Maddie help an injured German pilot land his plane on their runway–by pretending he’s safely made it back to France. Two things are really striking about these characters, given their time and place. 1-They are girls who are capable, skilled, and efficient at jobs almost exclusively reserved for men. Maddie is a mechanic and a pilot; Julie becomes a spy. 2-They are incredibly close and good friends. There are a lot of female friendships represented in literature as catty and jealous. I know a lot of women who feel more comfortable with men than with other women. Consider a character like Bella Swan from Twilight. She has almost zero female friends, and 99% of her life is caught up between two dudes. Of course, there are a lot of problems with Twilight; I won’t go into all that. The point is, seeing a strong and loyal female friendship is rarer than you might think.
This book is a little bit of a ‘mind game’, as the NYT blurb on the cover indicates. The first 1/3 of the book is Julie’s narrative. She is writing on borrowed scraps of paper after being caught in occupied France. She has been tortured by the Gestapo, and she is writing her story to delay her upcoming transfer to a concentration camp. It’s bleak and manic, describing in detail her ill-treatment and her guilt over giving up information to the Nazi’s. She tells the whole story of her relationship with Maddie, from its inception. From Maddie’s point of view. Maddie is on her mind constantly, because the Gestapo have showed her pictures of Maddie’s crashed plane and the charred body in the cockpit. The UK cover shows a more accurate depiction of the book, but I wonder if I would have read the book if it had had this cover?
But there are twists and turns once we reach the middle of the book. Both girls are so capable and so honest with their written accounts, that you start to believe that things might work out. But this is Nazi-occupied France, and I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that it doesn’t all work out. As much as I was hoping for a miracle at the end, there wasn’t one. But the bittersweet ending makes you appreciate even more the truly bad-ass nature of these two girls, and of everyone just fighting for survival at that time. People surviving the Blitz, the French resistance living in constant fear, the beleaguered and eternally-ruined souls of everyone who took part in the Nazi party and in the Gestapo. Everyone was just…surviving, if they were lucky. I really am not someone capable of dealing with this level of misery! If I think about it too much, I can’t get out of bed in the morning.
Before you have me committed for manic depression, I’ll snap myself out of it. I had mixed feelings about the end, because the girls were so honorable and so easy to look up to, but anyone born in that time was just going to experience their fair share of misery. Now that I’ve calmed down about the ending, I can look back and say that I really enjoyed the book. It was worth dealing with the pain to see such capable, smart, emotional, and brave women as main characters in a story. No man to save the day; they rely on themselves. The book also makes sure to make every character–even the Gestapo interrogator– a real human, with flaws and doubts and pleasures and pains. Books that portray Nazi’s as superhuman monsters aren’t helping us avoid making the same mistakes in future. I think this book was really successful at taking a totally inhuman, alien concept like being a P.o.W. in a Nazi stronghold, or like hiding with a family in the French Resistance, and makes it seem real and comprehensible. It gives life to an era I (fortunately) didn’t see. I really enjoyed it, even though it required a lot of chocolate to recover from.