Code Name Verity: Women Save the Day (without the men!)

Although it is easy to be enamored by novels with helpless heroines and countless romantic entanglements, Elizabeth Wein succeeds in creating an engaging world in her novel Code Name Verity, where the women value friendship over romance and actually do save the day.  In addition to the lack of a romantic angle, Wein’s novel stands apart from other Young Adult fiction with its innovative historical approach to women’s involvement in WWII.

Wein’s story follows the friendship between the strong, yet feminine Resistance spy Julie (whose code name is Verity) and the determined transport pilot Maddie.  In a spy mission, Maddie flies her best friend Julie into occupied France to gather information on the Nazi forces.  On their way to the meet point, enemy fire strikes the plane, forcing Julie to parachute to safety while Maddie goes down with the plane.  But everything goes wrong: Julie does not escape to safety because the Gestapo find her first.

Julie speaks the first words of the novel: “I AM A COWARD.”  Julie writes these words under Nazi surveillance from her cell.  Julie agrees to give information to Gestapo officer Von Linden about the Resistance and the British War Effort in order to stay alive.  Yet through her confession Julie actually writes the story about her friendship with Maddie and the events that brought them both to France.  Against the reality of suffering through the Nazi’s torture, Julie persists in writing a story honors her friendship with Maddie.

While the novel begins with Julie’s story and ends with Maddie’s, Wein interweaves each woman’s story just as she weaves the friendship between the two through their written words. Wein makes Maddie and Julie’s friendship believable through the connection they share in their writing.  By giving Julie and Maddie authorship of their own stories, Wein also gives her characters two distinct voices and therefore creates two fully developed heroines instead of one.

Wein’s supporting characters are also not to be ignored.  Anna Engel, Julie’s Nazi supervisor and “caretaker,” Paul the womanizing pilot, Julie’s charming yet toeless brother Jamie, and eerily calm and controlled Nazi Von Linden.  Instead of showing a one-dimensional portrayal of wartime relationships, Wein offers insight to the complicated nature of human emotions.  Julie knows Von Linden as a Nazi who prescribes her punishment, and yet she learns that he is also a father who loves and protects his own daughter.  The Nazis are undoubtedly the antagonist within Wein’s story, but Wein does not place them in the roles of villains; rather, she portrays Von Linden and Anna Engel as people who had very different lives before the war and now must keep up with everyone else in the power struggle, even if through villainous acts.  With complicated characters, Wein not only offers a story of friendship between two women, she also offers a portrayal of the realities of war, imprisonment, resistance and survival.

Wein’s careful release of information gradually unfolds an intricate story, which makes up for its slow-paced beginning.  The novel truly gains speed during Maddie’s section, with numerous revelations and “a-ha” moments that make the reader re-think earlier events.  Wein’s active language engrosses the reader in the thoughts of its two heroines, demonstrating her talent for creating characters with a personal voice and personality.

Despite being a narrative about wartime experience, Wein’s world relies on the strength of character and friendship more than notions of duty or courage.  Although the historical aspect of Wein’s fictional story is intriguing, it often felt that I had to keep a mental list of military abbreviations when the RAF (Royal Air Force) was really all I could remember.  And yet, Wein grounds her story in the events of the past to give the real heroes of the time an honest portrayal: she gives a voice to women in the military in a time where only men were glorified as heroes.  Wein’s focus on female characters offers a different perspective of WWII that most historians forget to write about, one that includes strong women.

What is particularly interesting about Wein’s novel is the lack of supporting male characters.  I myself was surprised when an un-introduced military character turned out to be a woman instead of a man at more than one instance.  It almost seems that Wein has specifically removed men from having any agency within her novel, including Von Linden who himself must answer to a boss higher up, in order to give the women their own story.  Although Wein’s woman-driven world is slightly jarring, it is also refreshing.  Readers who crave the drama of wartime romance should look somewhere else, but shouldn’t dismiss the friendship narrative so quickly.  Wein’s book never once had me turn the page expecting to encounter a romantic interest, which was an interesting experience but a positive step out of my own reading comfort zone.

Wein’s novel stirs reflection not only on the story she crafts, but also on the reader’s experience of Young Adult fiction.  Wein removes the need for her female characters to feel validated by romance and replaces it with the need for human connection through friendship.  It might take several pages to get used to, but Wein’s story is worth the read to the end.

Wein’s novel invites not only a new look at history, but also a new look at the value of friendship.  As Julie says: “it’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”

(The book’s trailer for interested readers) [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kLMupsGhJk

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