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August Discussion – Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

ImageSpoilers Ahead …

Code Name Verity was a very challenging and intellectual read.  Some of us struggled with part one and felt it dragged a little but found our efforts of perseverance were well rewarded as part two provided the satisfactory solving of an intellectual puzzle. Although we felt that Wein could have cut out some of the extraneous aircraft detail from part one, we felt that it was also a deliberate ploy to keep the reader busy intellectually so that when the story is unraveled, and plot twists and turns are revealed in part two, it brings about an emotional reaction that we were not expecting.

We began our discussion with a quote from Queenie:

I AM A COWARD. I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending… But now I know I am a coward … And I’m going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail.

This quote prompted us to debate the following questions: what is truth? How reliable is Verity/Queenie/Julie as a narrator and how much of the confession of a spy who narrates her story under coercion and torture can possibly be truthful?  Many of you suspected that the literal truth conceals deeper truths and felt that there is something deeper happening throughout the novel that initially is hard to place.  Some group members felt they were continually questioning the reality and veritas of the narration and the narrator’s true identity.

What we ascertained from the novel is that Julie is a complex character – Scottish, tiny, wealthy, multi-lingual, aristocratic and well-travelled.  Although in her “confession” she paints herself as a coward, the reader sympathises with her reaction to the horror of her torture when she writes:

The warmth and dignity of my flannel skirt and woolly jumper are worth far more to me now than patriotism or integrity.

What we do learn at the end of the novel is that Julie is truly brave and courageous and protects her fellow compatriots with hidden code and instructions to navigate the Gestapo headquarters the entire way throughout her confession.  She has been an unreliable narrator for a purpose.  Her narrative switches from first person to third person (what we thought was Julie removing herself from the narrative perhaps) and there are many surprises and shocks that await the reader.  Through Maddie’s dealings with Anna Engel we learn that Queenie/Julie is not the collaborator that she depicts herself to be and nor is Engel merely a brutal Nazi secretary. Appearances can be deceiving in this world of double agents and espionage.  We felt quite strongly that the aspects of the novel that are “truthful” are the relationships between the two main characters and the expressions of fear, guilt and anguish Julie experiences through her torture, and in her belief that Maddie is dead.

Our discussion took us to the big issues of cowardice, bravery, patriotism and integrity and how they are demonstrated by the English, the French and the Germans.  We thought that the following statement from Maddie was very powerful:

I know the Allied Forces are planning a proper invasion of Occupied Europe with tanks and planes and gliders full of commandos, but when I think of France being liberated I picture an avenging army arriving on bicycles.

It was felt that Wein gave us a great understanding of patriotism and the resistance and we were moved by her portrayal of the French people, young and old, who work together to resist the Germans.  In particular, we were touched by the actions of the old lady (ironically, Julie’s great-aunt) who maintains the beautiful rose gardens, and at great personal risk, goes out at night to bury the prisoners murdered by the Nazis.

We thought that Wein has an exceptional ability to develop multi-dimensional characters.  The most flawed and the most noble of her characters are developed to show balance.  We discussed that even SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden, Julie’s interrogator and ultimately the man who decides her future, is not presented as a one-dimensional evil character.  Julie intrigues von Linden and they seem to have an intellectual meeting of the minds.  She gets him to talk about his daughter and the reflection by Maddie, “And then, there is Isolde von Linden, at school in Switzerland, who doesn’t yet know that her father has just shot himself” shows how clearly Wein is able to capture the impact of war on individuals. Similarly, Paul, although a brave and courageous resistance fighter, is also shown to be lecherous and questionable in his dealings with the young girls and thus Wein subtly explores the complex nature of good and evil within every human.  We felt that the description of the incident with the young German pilot, who landing the plane under Queenie’s instruction believes that he has landed in France, and his subsequent bewilderment and confusion, also reveals Wein’s compassion and sympathy for the young soldiers on both sides of the war.

Our group members had various ideas about von Linden’s motivations for giving Julie such a long time to write out her confession.  One suggestion was that he is a very experienced interrogator and his willingness to wait for her was part of his strategy for exacting the most information.  We were horrified for Julie with the scene where von Linden rubs her hair gently, says one word “kerosene” and then leaves her to believe that they will torment her by setting her alight, when in fact they treat her for head lice.  Although it is instances like this that show von Linden to be a master manipulator and tormentor, he delegates the torture to others and then comes back to check his results, ultimately it is Julie who ends up the most empowered by her actions.  We also discussed that in times of crisis and chaos, one never knows how one will act or react, but none of us believed that we were capable of great heroism.

We enjoyed the use of humour and noted that Julie is self-deprecating and even when she is tortured is still biting and sarcastic.  We wondered whether this technique made the violence more palatable.  It was noted that this is a technique with which we are very familiar in film and gave examples of the feisty hero who facing danger makes witty remarks.  We discussed Wein’s motivation, after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, to write a novel about someone who was an anti-hero, a coward, and that is from where the story of Julie originated.

The greatest element of this story is the friendship between Maddie and Julie.  We found it refreshing to read a YA novel that does not involve a love triangle or romance angle but is simply about the bonds of friendship.  We discussed the quote, “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend” with relation to the girls’ friendship.  We wondered whether we would have the ability to love someone as well as Maddie and make the sacrifice that she did.  Could we do the unthinkable if it prevents something worse from happening?  In the circumstances Maddie has no other option and we debated what we understood to be courage under fire; especially given that Maddie is prepared to hang or be court-martialled for her actions.  We were all very moved by the last third of the novel and found the letter written from Julie’s mother to Maddie to be particularly gut-wrenching.

The style of this novel and the epistolary format (the confession is written on Jewish doctor’s prescription pads, pages of flute music, hotel stationary and recipe cards) and the dual narration appealed to us but we were quite baffled as to why it was marketed as young adult when it is a good spy story for adult readers.  Many of you thought that only the very good readers in your upper levels would find this novel accessible.  We thought that perhaps we are so used to reading action packed YA that this would require a second reading to fully grasp the plot intricacies.

We concluded our discussion with quotes from Elizabeth Wein. Firstly, on writing historical fiction she writes: “Contemporary historical fiction brings the past into the present and makes it relevant” and we felt that this story was a wonderful glimpse into a period of history of changing gender roles that truly captures the essence of a different time. We noted that in War World II the tools of the resistance were people, bicycles and boats yet the consequences for Europe were profound with families displaced, towns devastated and millions of people murdered or displaced.

We finally discussed Elizabeth Wein’s comment on the current trend for YA dystopia:

I have yet to discover a fictional dystopia more fearful than Auschwitz-Birkenau. Tens of thousands a day were routinely murdered there in the summer of 1944. It’s like trying to understand the size of the universe – you can’t really get your head around it.

Our final comments about this novel were that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.  When we read about the events of World War II, for some an event that occurred within our own lifetimes, it is indeed hard to believe that humans are capable of these actions.