“Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein, is a masterpiece of historical fiction, deceptively categorized as Young Adult fiction. It begins “I AM A COWARD” as Verity writes on pieces of paper from a once elegant French hotel, now Gestapo headquarters, where she is being held and tortured after the plane she was ferried in crashes in a French field. It is the fall of 1943. To stay alive, Verity, a wireless operator, is penning British code secrets. Each secret she exposes gives her back an article of clothing. She is shunned by other prisoners as she tells her story, Under the watchful eyes of Fräulein Engel, who must translate her writing into German, Verity buys time before her eminent execution, as she weaves a tale of friendship with Maddie, the dead pilot.
Verity, aka Queenie, and Maddie have a friendship unlikely in 1943. Verity has royal blood dating back to Mary Queen of Scots and William Wallace. Her life has been one of culture and finishing schools. Maddie is the daughter of immigrant Russian Jews. She can dismantle an engine, and put it back together; a precise mechanic who dreams of becoming a pilot. One girl becomes a secret agent, the other becomes an aviator, ferrying spies and resistance fighters. It is their friendship that gives them hope and the strength to do what needs to be done. That friendship made me laugh, gasp and it made me cry as much as it made me marvel at the human spirit.
The first half of the book is told through Verity/Queenie’s writing, which begins first on the hotel stationery, then on recipe cards, musical scores, even on prescription pads that bear the name of a Jewish doctor. Through her writing, Verity gives away war secrets as she tells her and Maddie’s story. She also, almost casually, comments on the torture she is subjected to, or of the torture to others that she is forced to witness. With very little description, the horrors of being a prisoner of war are revealed.
Abruptly, Verity’s story ends, and another’s begins, picking up the pace, revealing all manner of clues that were always in Verity’s writing. To tell you much more would be to expose the whole story. It is the one conundrum that almost every review I read about “Code Name Verity” expresses. This is a tightly wound tale – and you will not realize how tight it is until this point in the book. I simply could not put it down, so riveted was I to these pages.
I wish there was a different way to categorize books in the young adult category. YA covers anything between the ages of 12 – 18, though I’ve seen the category go up to 25. That is huge range of skill, knowledge, reading maturity, and it is so confusing. “Code Name Verity” will be found in the young adult section of your library. Don’t be fooled. While it is aimed at readers younger than perhaps you or I, it is a book that is very much for adults as well. It is in paperback, and, depending on where you call home, has several different dust jackets. I did not like the one pictured here, which is the cover on the copy I read. After I read “Code Name Verity”, I felt it was a fitting cover, after all.
I encourage you to give “Code Name Verity” a try.