Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
The narrator of this WWII historical thriller is a coward, a quisling, a traitor to her country. She has caved under pressure (okay, you might call it torture) from her Gestapo captors and blabbed everything she knows about wireless codes and English military secrets. The real Resistance prisoners she’s held with spit on the ground when she walks by.
Held for weeks in a makeshift prison in occupied France, our narrator is writing a confession of sorts for SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden, who really wants details about English double agents and air forces, but is getting more story than he bargained for: her first flight on a Puss Moth, her recruitment as a special ops agent, and, especially, her friendship with Maddie Brodatt, a female pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary.
And it’s weird, but in the slowly-emerging picture of our narrator’s old life… she doesn’t sound like a coward. In fact, I keep picturing Steve McQueen. Steve might be dismayed that I have mentally cast him as a tiny Scottish blonde, but there is a clear Steve McQueen vibe coming through in her attitude. Specifically, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape: cracking wise, mouthing off, locked up in the cooler with his baseball and biding his time until the next escape attempt.
And this handwritten confession has been underlined in key places–passages that describe the repurposed hotel/prison, its layout, the timing of the guards, everything you might need to know, in short, if you were planning a rescue mission.
I’ve gushed about Elizabeth Wein’s prose before, and I’ll say it again: not a word is wasted. Details about the English home front, wartime aviation, and the French resistance fly by in support of a cracking good adventure. I did not need to see the closing bibliography to know that the author immersed herself in memoirs from the time, because she uses the kinds of detail that only real life supplies to fiction. Nor did it come as a surprise that Wein has firsthand experience as a pilot. Her descriptions of England as seen from the sky are some of the book’s most moving passages.
Suspense, characters you care about, a thrilling and heartbreaking adventure. Historical fiction: this is how you do it.
Check the WRL catalog for Code Name Verity.