Code Name Verity is fantastic. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it (or crying about it) since I finished reading it. It is an unexpectedly powerful story of friendship and confronting one’s worst fears. It is also an ode to the brave and often nameless women who flew and fought alongside men in World War II as part of the Special Operations Executive, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and Air Transport Auxiliary.
The first part of the book is narrated by Julie and is presented to the reader in the form of her confession to the Gestapo in Ormaie, France. Julie is Scottish and proud of it, claiming William Wallace and Mary Queen of Scots as ancestors. Julie has been captured while on a mission for the SOE in France. By writing out a confession, she is buying herself time and a very few comforts before she gets shipped off to certain death in one of the Nazi camps. As she writes, revealing various codes and locations of airfields and such, she also details her friendship with Maddie, the pilot who was shot down with her and who has apparently died as a result. While Julie comes from wealth, privilege and education, Maddie Brodatt is the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, a girl who never had a chance at a university education. Maddie, however, has great skills as a mechanic. After a chance meeting with a female pilot, Maddie turns her automotive skills toward aircraft and eventually learns to fly. Once the war starts, Maddie joins the WAAF — Women’s Auxiliary Air Force — where she works as a ground radio operator for pilots, and she is very good at what she does. Given her previous flight experience, she is expert at guiding in newer (all male) pilots. It is in the WAAF that she meets “Queenie,” aka Julie. They seem an unlikely pair, but are a “sensational team” and become very close. One topic of conversation that comes up for them more than once is the ten things you are afraid of; cold, the dark, getting lost, harm to one’s family are among the things each girl names. As the war continues and the nature of their work changes, each girl will have to face some of these fears.
For a time the girls are separated. Maddie is encouraged to join the ATA, or Air Transport Auxiliary. It’s a civilian operation, but it allows Maddie to fly planes again. She ferries damaged planes from one airfield to another and back again. So while she is not authorized for combat (no women were), she has experience with a variety of aircraft and with flying aircraft in disrepair. Meanwhile, since Julie knows French and German, she eventually ends up working with the SOE or Special Operations Executive — the unit responsible for spy work and coordination with the resistance. In her confession, Julie explains how the two friends come together again and how they ended up flying together into France.
All the while that Julie is writing this confession, she is also commenting on those who hold her and the conditions of the prison (an old hotel) where she is held. She can hear the screams of others who were captured and are being tortured for information. She knows they hate her for collaborating. She hates the Nazis and fears them. And she hates herself for caving in. Time is running out for Julie and she will soon be shipped out to a horrific fate.
In Part 2 of the book, narration switches over to Maddie and focuses on what has happened in France since the crash landing of her plane. To go into detail about part 2 would really spoil the plot, so suffice it to say that yes, Maddie and Julie truly are great friends, and each of these girls will have to face her deepest fears in Ormaie. Maddie and Julie may be fictional characters, but their plight and their bravery as imagined by Elizabeth Wein elicited real tears from me. I applaud Wein for her portrayal of these two young women as fast friends, as brave, strong, smart, and afraid all at the same time. It’s a credit to the real women who served, facing torture and even death in the war. In her bibliography at the end, Wein mentions a book that I read several years ago, A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE by Sarah Helm. It is worth your while if you are interested in WWII, women in war and the resistance. Maddie and Julie are fine representatives of these heroes, and Code Name Verity is an outstanding book. It has a brilliant plot and great heart. Keep some tissues within reach as you read.