Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wednesday, April 26, 2012: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Code Name Verity

Hyperion Books: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Hyperion Books: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Hyperion Books: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Hyperion Books: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity

by Elizabeth Wein

"I am a coward," admits the narrator in the very first line of Wein's (The Winter Prince) extraordinary novel. It's the opening to her written confession for her Nazi captors. Verity, the narrator-prisoner's code name, is a Scot working for the allies. She was captured when her plane went down in France, where she's being held by SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden. But her small acts of rebellion as recorded by her own hand betray her bravery. For instance, she taunts the Nazi officer who turns his back after he returns her clothes one piece at a time, from "the outside in," in exchange for the Allies' codes, so she must undress each time she receives a new item; she tells him he's "missing a good show." She's often punished for her sassy commentary, which wins us over immediately. "I am in the Special Operations Executive because I can speak French and German and am good at making up stories," she writes, "and I am a prisoner in the Ormaie Gestapo HQ because I have no sense of direction whatsoever."

Fräulein Engel translates the written account from English to German for von Linden, and SS-Scharführer Etienne Thibaut metes out Verity's punishments for various transgressions. Verity calls them "Laurel and Hardy," and believes von Linden hopes she'll "do some ratting" on them ("He does not trust Thibaut because Thibaut is French, and he does not trust Engel because Engel is a woman"). Thus Verity amuses herself.

Most of Verity's account, however, weaves in episodes from a friendship between pilot Maddie Brodatt and Queenie, a Scottish wireless operator for the Allies who speaks French and German as well as her native English. At one point, fairly early on, von Linden points out to Fräulein Engel, by way of insult, that she has failed to recognize that "the English Flight Officer has studied the craft of the novel. She is making use of suspense and foreshadowing." To which Verity--whom we now know is Queenie--replies, "I am not English, you ignorant Jerry bastard, I am a SCOT." This friendship, forged when Queenie and Maddie teamed up to bring down a German-speaking pilot safely on an English landing strip, sustains Verity throughout her imprisonment.

Verity's account of her friendship with Maddie--the framework for her delivery of the "codes"--also serves as a record of the small moments of pleasure during wartime. The young women cement their friendship when they are forced to take shelter during an air raid, shortly after they've brought in the German pilot. Maddie takes Queenie on a bike ride to try and teach her navigational skills, and they wind up at a farmhouse where a generous family feeds them their first good meal in three months. When Maddie has a free shift, she opts for a train ride rather than sleeping on the base and winds up in Queenie's hometown. The stationmaster recognizes Maddie as a soldier (by her boots) and points her to Queenie's castle, where she meets Queenie's brother, Jamie, and the foster children ("Lost Boys") they've taken in  during the war. The author keeps us mindful of how difficult it was to come by clothes, footwear and food. The scene of the Lost Boys, along with Jamie and Maddie, savoring an egg each is enough to make one hungry ("the hot, bright yolk was like a summer sun breaking through cloud, the first daffodil in the snow, a gold sovereign wrapped in a white silk handkerchief"). And Maddie's always saving up for her next chocolate bar.

Literary and historical allusions pepper the dialogue. During a second air raid, after Maddie and Queenie shoot down an enemy plane, Queenie can't find her way through the smoke to the air raid shelter, and Maddie tells her, "Straight line across the grass.... Like finding Neverland, 'Second to the right and then straight on till morning.' " To which Queenie replies with Nelson's purported last words at the Battle of Trafalgar: "Kiss me, Hardy!" Verity here sums up one of the novel's central themes: "It's like being in love, discovering your best friend," she writes. Especially for Maddie and Queenie, who spend so much of the war working solo.

One of the author's great achievements is her ability to impart technical information while making it comprehensible--Verity wants us to be co-conspirators, so she leads us along with her. Wein also proves again and again that each character in these pages has a complexity that may at first elude us. Even von Linden can be vulnerable at times. As Wein weaves in layers upon layers of details, the ground shifts with each revelation. Like Megan Whalen Turner, Wein creates a captive who uses wit as a weapon, and makes us feel that, at least intellectually, Verity has the upper hand.

You will finish this novel and feel two competing urges: you'll  want to start this book over at the beginning to see how Wein laid the foundation for her later unveilings, and you will also want to hand it immediately to a friend, and urge him or her to read it as quickly as possible, so you can talk about it. Wein's work is mesmerizing. --Jennifer M. Brown

Hyperion/Disney, $16.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 14-up, 9781423152194, May 15, 2012

Hyperion Books: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein: "The Plot Kept Surprising Me"

After Elizabeth Wein wrote a story called "Something Worth Doing" for the anthology Firebirds Soaring, in which a girl disguises herself as her pilot brother, her editor asked if she'd write something longer. Wein was "casting about" for ideas when she read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for her book group. "I loved the Elizabeth McKenna character," the author said. "But I thought, 'This character is too heroic. I'll never be able to live up to this ideal.' " Wein got the idea to create someone cowardly, someone who's confessing--someone who would tell the story of her friend the pilot. "The plot kept surprising me," Wein said. We're betting it will surprise readers, too.

Do you have a particular interest in intrigue? It's also an element in your Arthurian series, begun with Winter Prince.

Definitely. The last three of my Arthurian books are spy novels. With Sunbird, the spy is actually a child, and I made that kid as young as I could, but intelligent and mature enough to do what he sets out to do. Then I thought about the consequences for the people who thought it was a good idea [to send a child out as a spy].

I'd dearly love to write a mystery novel. Plot happens around the characters I create, but I don't think I'm equipped to write a plot to begin with. With Verity, I was 150 pages in before I knew what her mission was. I didn't know why Verity was in France.

How did you find Verity's voice?

It's the voice of my own journal, my private-to-me voice. It has never been easier. It came flowing out of me.

This quote from Verity turns out to be all too true, doesn't it: "There's glory and honor in being chosen. But not much room for free will."

It's true of everyone who's involved. It depends what you're chosen for, I suppose. I'm now thinking of the other side of the war. We never get close to the concentration camps [in this book]. That's the other side. Where these people are chosen and they have no free will at all, and there's no honor and glory in it, either.

One of the things that's so admirable about your book is how no one--not even the villains--is one-dimensional. Verity writes, "People are complicated. There is so much more to everybody than you realize."

Despite the fact that von Linden's role in the book is the embodiment of evil, he has his own history, his own family, people who respect and admire him back home. Everybody has an extra layer. Some don't get enough air time.

You make us feel so hungry in that scene of Maddie, Jamie and the Lost Boys each eating an egg.

It does the same thing for me. While I was writing it, whenever I would eat a soft-boiled egg, I'd need to admire it. I try to include concrete visual, tactile sensory details that people can relate to.

Hyperion sent the manuscript out to someone from the Imperial War Museum, and one of the things he came up with--and he didn't come up with much--was that eggs were not rationed during the war, they were allocated. With allocation, you were allowed a certain number of eggs per week, whereas with rationing you could have as many eggs as you wanted as long as you had the ration coupons. In any case, I had to change it so I was using the right word. There are tiny details like this throughout the book.

Do you speak French or German?

I speak French, but very badly. My French teacher in high school, Mrs. Berman, was in the French Resistance. She was maybe 15 when the war started. She was Jewish and living in Paris. Her family was hidden in plain sight in a village in the French countryside, pretending to be Roman Catholic. She was fluent in Polish and German and French. The Resistance got hold of her and used her as a translator and, later, for delivering dynamite and such. One of our delights in French class was to distract her and get her to tell stories of her time in the Resistance. That was very influential for me, before I had any idea I'd write this book. Three years ago, I got an A-level in French. She died before I got a chance to tell her. For the French phrases in the book, I wrote my own French and got my current French teacher to check it, but for the German, I relied on friends to help me.

Peter Pan plays an important role in the book. How did that come about?

Barrie is Scottish, and lived 30 miles from where I live. The Scots really revere their literary icons. So it seemed like the sort of thing that would be on Verity's radar. Because it's very recognizable still today, the whole issue of "second to the right and straight on til morning" sort of started it off. There was an ATA pilot who was nicknamed Wendy. She was one of the few flying women. I did make it up for the book, but found that [fact] out later. The Lost Boys, that suggested itself. But the things that turned up after I'd made them up.... In one of my historic monuments magazines, there was an article about a woman who'd opened up her home to eight children in a Glasgow castle.

Back to Peter Pan. Most is in the public domain. You don't actually need permission to quote from it. The quotation I had in mind was "second star to the right and straight on til morning." The woman I contacted said, "That 'star' was put in by Disney when they made the movie in 1952. I think it does a disservice to children's imaginations, to specify it's a star." So I took the star out. She thanked me for asking permission.

There's a wonderful quote from Verity when she describes connecting with Maddie, a friendship that sustains her through all the months they're separated by the war: "It's like being in love, discovering your best friend."

It's a friendship written from the heart. I was celebrating my friendships with women when I wrote it. --Jennifer M. Brown

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