Code Name Verity
Elizabeth Wein
Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book
2013 Printz Honor

If this book doesn’t win an award, I’ll eat my hat. Thankfully, I don’t think that will be necessary. If it is necessary, I might eat the award committee(s)’ hat(s). (update 6/12/12: BG-HB Honor! 1/29/13: Printz Honor!)

This is the absolute best modern young adult novel I have read in recent years. And that’s saying a lot because there are some really great ones out there. It’s also one of those “young adult” novels that will be enjoyed equally well by grown-ups (after all, the main characters are in their early 20s I believe).

Two girls who are truly best friends. Two girls, each telling part of the story. Two girls, one English and one Scottish, each involved in the war effort. Two girls, one rich and one middle class. Two girls, each doing work traditionally done by men. Two girls, each braver than I think I will ever be.

This book is set during WWII in both Britain and Nazi-occupied France. This book is gritty: the harsh, gut-wrenching reality of war and all its associated trauma (interrogation, torture, fear, desperation, bravery, plane crashes, successful raids and not so successful raids, bombings,…). And this is one of the things I loved about this book. Somehow, Wein manages to convey so much of the atrocities of war without going into too much detail. And I’m so thankful because I don’t know that I could have taken graphic descriptions.

The main characters in this book are, for the most part, professing agnostics, lapsed Jews, etc. And yet, the dignity of humanity comes through loud and clear. It’s not put in terms of “the image of God,” per se, but even the seemingly soul-less enemies are presented as multi-dimensional, with perhaps a grain of conscience lurking under their relentless ruthlessness.

This is what sets this book apart. Rarely do I read a young adult novel this richly layered and well crafted. The “voice” aspect of this book, the way in which the plot is revealed, the layers of characterization, the amazingly hard-yet-perfect ending, the setting–all of it is so. well. done. The kind of book you so thoroughly enjoy reading because the very experience is so rewarding, and, when you are done, you want to immediately reread now that you know all the backstory. Amazing. Part of its excellent crafting is the sheer intelligence it presupposes the reader to have: French and German quotations that aren’t always translated, literary allusions like crazy, subtle revelations that the reader simply has to pick up on–this is way books are supposed to be written. You will laugh, recoil, cringe, probably cry, maybe even stand up and cheer….

Things to Note/Discuss

  • A novel about war which is portraying reality will necessarily include foul language, violence, etc. Because of this, I’d recommend this book be given to high school students and up. It’s not inappropriate for high school students, but certainly heavy enough to reserve for them.
  • The friendship of the two girls reminds me a touch of David and Jonathan in the Old Testament: the sacrifice(s) they make, the level of their devotion to one another, etc. 
  • And, of course, in any well done novel set during war-time, you can always discuss war! When, if ever, is it justified? What actions are “okay” during war, but not during peacetime? etc.

Book read as an ARC through netgalley; on shelves in stores this month–give it some time to migrate to your local library, but I daresay most libraries will be adding this to their collections. Book cover image from goodreads

Recommended for high school and up.