By Elizabeth Wein
When I was a child, I was fascinated by all things World War II. Specifically, the Holocaust captured my imagination. I read the Diary of Anne Frank. The Devil's Arithmetic became my favourite book, read over and over and over again throughout my childhood. Concentration camps, musselmen, numbers tattooed in neat lines on the pale skin of a wrist. Morbid things for an eight year old to be so obsessed with, perhaps. My fascination developed from there, following refugee children to Canada, delving deep into true stories of struggle, each one with a name, each one with a face, each one full of loss and triumph. I was drawn in by the struggle, the clarity of who the enemy was, the final triumphant moments of escape or freedom, brought about by the arrival of friendly faces wielding life-saving guns.
Fiction set in WWII - especially fiction for children - almost always focuses on the triumph.
And then, one day when I was probably 12 or 13, with no new books to read, I sat at our computer and ran a search. 'Nazi concentration camps'. Or 'Jews in Germany in World War II' perhaps. Suddenly, WWII didn't look so triumphant. Each layer of romanticism my childish mind I had placed upon it was ripped back in those images. I couldn't handle it. The Holocaust became an atrocity relegated to my childhood.
So, when this book came in the mail, the blurb didn't excite me. Nazis. Spies. Planes. A Jewish character. Torture. For kids. But, I read it anyway.
Code Name Verity is about two best friends. One is a pilot. One a wireless operator. They fly, together, into Nazi-occupied France. Something goes wrong. One jumps, the other crashes. The story is told in two halves: first, from the perspective of the wireless operator. The other, from the perspective of the pilot.
I'm not going to try to tell you that this book doesn't water down its content for the young adult crowd. It does. It's easy to read, and the true pain of war is kept at arms length for the reader through the use of strong, focused female characters, the kind of women that don't let things get to them so they can do their job. But this book was good. Why? Let me count the ways.
- The story. First and foremost, a good book must have a good story. And it was! I've told you hardly any of it because I don't want to give even a tidbit away; it's that good.
- The twists. Oh, it's full of delightful twists, the kind that have you blinking and then exclaiming your excitement aloud on the subway.
- The grab-you-by-the-throat-and-twist-until-you're-sobbing-uncontrollably moment. I was on the subway. I sobbed anyway. It's a good thing I had my sunglasses with me.
- The characters. You can't help but love them, strong, female characters who need no one to save them. They're smart. Morally dedicated to what is right. Faithful to their friendship.
This book has made me want to go back, with adult eyes, to some of those books I read as a child. It makes me want to rediscover the deep interest I had in the lives of - specifically - women and children during WWII. It makes me want to remember the stories that have come out of that period of world history, the struggle, the loss, and yes, even the triumph, as shallow as it may be.