Let me start by saying that I’m a Hunger Games gal. I thought that series was the end for me; the top of the bold, brave mountain of perfect Young Adult (YA) literature. I would keep reading YA, I figured, but I would be standing at the top of Everest looking down to do it. How would it get better than Suzanne Collins’ frenetic pacing, allusion to contemporary politics, consice, brutal descriptions, gasp-inducing action, and the name Katniss Everdeen? Let me tell you, friends. It could be about a war that has ALREADY HAPPENED IN REAL LIFE, equally terrible to Panem’s child slaughter. It could have a female protaginist infinitely more invested in directing her own fate than Katniss was, Collins forgive me. It could still be as tightly wound as a top, as intricately plotted as any good twist-ending requires, and equally stupefying in violence and intrigue. It could contain the names of monarchs and spies, Nazis and codes. It could be Code Name Verity, the best book I’ve read this year, and the new YA Everest.
NOTE: In order to properly discuss how brilliantly Elizabeth Wein constructed this story, I will have to give away some plot twists. It’s a book about spies. EVERYTHING IS A PLOT TWIST.
The narrative takes the form of the “great dissertation of treason” of Julia Beaufort-Stuart, a Scottish Flight Officer for the Royal Air Force in 1943. In exchange for ink, paper, and an indeterminate stay of execution, Julie agrees to give her Nazi captors wireless code and secret information from the Allies. Every sentence of her tale crackles on the page. She is cool about the horrors to which she is subjected, so much so that further information gleaned from the MYSTERIOUS AND PLOT-TWISTY second half of the book is actually when we realize that she was writing dozens of pages while being electrocuted, burned, kept awake, and starved. Like Katniss, she is not flippant about her deadly serious circumstance, but she is clearly operating under the shawl of make-believe, guts, and cool-headedness that got her her Sepcial Operations Executive job title in the first place. Hunger Games is a series of books exploring trauma on children and teenagers, extrapolating this exploration into a speculatively-fictioned-but-very-familiar future world. Code Name Verity looks no further than history books to explore the same themes. Women DID work as pilots and spies in WWII. Not many, but some. They WERE young. They WERE caught, and tortured, and killed. And somewhere, surely, they WERE best friends, believing fiercely that the other was alive, against all odds and evidence, when separated on the job while carrying each other’s critical identification papers. Wein’s lengthy “Author’s Debriefing,” in fact a legal necessity, to verify that this work of (she loathsomely admits) fiction does not breach the Official Secrets Act, goes into detail about how she researched the roles lady Allies played in the War.
Yes. It’s real enough that it was at risk of revealing actual state secrets.
Wein, a pilot herself, was originally looking for information about what her life would have been like, had she been alive and enlisted in the 40s. Her arguments for the verisimilitude of the novel worked for me, as I could forgive the presence of a ballpoint pen just shy of the ballpoint pen’s release, and Maggie flying to Europe well before Air Transport Auxiliary cleared women to do so. This may have been because by the time I reached the Author’s Debriefing, my brain was otherwise involved, trying to remember if I had ACTUALLY seen any of the revelations of the book’s second half coming. (I totally had. But only some.) Also I was white-knuckled and sleep-deprived. Not in the tortured-spy sort of way so much as the read-this-book-in-eight-hours-straight kind of way.
Code Name Verity is a book about several things. Love of country, yes. Bravery, cowardice, resistance, fear, yes. Friendship, the sustenance to be found in a “sensational team,” particularly in the darkest, most horrible, most hopeless of times, yes. (P.S. Scratch plans for mockingjay tattoo, I’m getting BFF ink with those words instead.) History, OUR history, history of a war that was REALLY FOUGHT, with REAL TORTURE enacted on REAL BODIES, yes. The truth, the deadly truth, the lying-through-your-teeth truth, yes. Young women who love each other and want, above all, to fly planes and keep a castle in Scotland, yes. All of this and more, but it never feels cluttered. Nor boring, even in lengthy descriptions of flight equipment and the history of Radar. Every word of Julie’s story matters desperately; to her, her captors, her country, her cause, and her best friend and ally (pun intended). And to me, a YA reader, a temporary Scot (trust me, it matters), and a truth-seeker. Julie and Maggie are intelligent (Julie is brilliant) characters, tasked with infinitely important jobs, who have to decide for themselves second to second how to do their duties and, if possible, stay alive. Katniss Everdeen, my lady narrator love in years past, did not have the ferocity nor the iron will of her British (SCOTTISH!) counterparts. Nor did she write in caps lock, which Julie does constantly and which endeared her to me in a GPOY sort of way on page one.
So here’s the deal. I won’t tell you the two biggest secrets if you promise to read it. Code Name Verity is the best book of 2012, across genre, age group, subject matter. Better than Hunger Games, though there’s all the room in the world for young female-centered narratives as far as I’m concerned. Katniss can shoot, Julie can write, Maggie can fly. They make a sensational team.