Set during the Second World War, “Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein features the intertwining lives of two remarkable women: one a Scottish operative working in espionage, the other a British pilot.
While “Verity” (real name withheld to let prospective readers enjoy the mystery and confusion of identity that await) is imprisoned for crimes as a spy in Ormaie at the torturous hands of the Germans, she tells the story of how she met her best friend Maddie, a resourceful pilot; her first experiences in a plane; and the events that led to her capture. Verity’s narrative style and self-deprecating humor (even under threats of torture) establish her as strong and resilient.
Nevertheless, she begins her confession by exclaiming, “I AM A COWARD,” going on to write more and more of her story, giving away names and locations, in exchange for lesser punishment. As we read further into the story we learn that no narrator is truly reliable, and that there are figures on both the Allied and the Axis sides of the war who are not what they seem and not to be trusted. Characters are found to withhold integral information and the story, which rushes along at breakneck speed, will leave readers breathless in their pursuit of clarification.
“Code Name Verity” is one of the most uniquely told Young Adult stories I have ever read. It has an intricate and compelling plot that is hard to speak to in a review lest it give away so many of the book’s twists and turns. But I can say that young women who are inspired by strong female role models will enjoy reading about the unconventional ways in which Verity and Maddie are able to assume roles that, at this point in history, would not usually have been given to women. Maddie’s interest in planes and Elizabeth Wein’s obvious knowledge of the Spitfires and fighter pilots of the era make for great adventure.
While the first half of the story spares no gruesome detail in authentically painting the life of an Allied spy convicted and held by the Gestapo, there are moments of hope and light and revelations that prove that life is made up of instances and people that are always more than they seem at first glance.
As a Christian, I found this a powerful story with great emotional and moral resonance. Readers of faith will be as challenged as I was by the blurring of truth and falsehood and how it evokes contemplation about when, and if, lies are justifiable when a good cause will be the outcome of their telling. Readers are also inspired to ponder words such as “honor” and “valor,” and which of the many characters in the book best embody these traits, and why heroism is often found in the most unlikely places.
Indeed, “Code Name Verity” works best when a reader has someone with whom to share and discuss its surprising outlook. Small groups of friends, a book club, or a parent reading simultaneously with his or her teen, will make this experience far more enjoyable and informative. To this point, one of the most integral parts of the story is its examination of the nature of good and evil when both are muddled by the atrocities and circumstances of war. I would encourage parents and educators to pay close attention to the motives of each character, and the consequences of lies and illegal activities even in desperate times, and discuss them with young readers.
Late-night missions, spy operations, and intense battle sequences are just some of the ingredients that make this teen read a compelling but dark one. Parents and educators should be aware that the subject matter is best experienced by mature readers. But for readers who enjoy well-researched historical novels told through gripping narration, “Code Name Verity” is a must-read. At its heart it is a story of heroism, valor, sacrifice, and the lasting power of friendship, even when war threatens to tear all hope and love asunder.
Image copyright Hyperion. Review copy from the reviewer’s personal collection.
Rachel McMillan blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven and is working on a historical novel of her own.