Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Screen shot 2013-07-27 at 2.27.12 PMI realized after drafting this review that it is the third World War II novel I’ve posted about since I began this blog a couple months ago. Whoops. I promise to mix it up after this.

Published in: 2012

Pages: 332

The protagonist: “Verity”, a Scottish wireless operator (early teens?) and daughter of Scottish aristocracy. Verity is a Gestapo prisoner of war in France in late summer/fall of 1943.

The gist in 100 words or less: Verity and her best friend Maddie, an English Air Transport Auxiliary pilot, have crash-landed their secret mission into France. Verity has been taken prisoner and is being tortured into confessing wireless codes and other Royal Air Force intelligence. Most of the text is Verity’s fictional “written confession” to her Nazi captors, focusing mainly on her friendship with Maddie and how the two ended up coming to France together.

Great stuff: Wein has done a spectacular job developing Verity’s character and giving her a truly unique and unforgettable voice throughout the novel, even when *SPOILER* the story switches away from Verity’s first-person point of view. I would definitely use excerpts in lessons about voice; it was that exceptional.

Also, I may have read the last 100 pages with my hand over my mouth and my eyes wide, and I definitely had to read the climactic scene about four times before I actually believed what I was reading. I very much appreciate it when I am unable to predict how a novel will end, and I certainly could not do so with this one.

Meh: I wasn’t hooked until I was about 150 pages in.

Verity’s voice is compelling and intriguing, and the story is eventually captivating, but the plot moves too slowly for as dense of a text as this is. There are lots of flashbacks to illustrate the history of Verity and Maddie’s friendship–and their friendship is what makes the end of the story so phenomenal–but it just didn’t move fast enough to keep me yearning to pick it back up. Wein is a pilot herself and clearly very interested in the subject, and I found the terminology and references a little over my head. The text was so dense that I feel like I missed a lot; perhaps because I read too fast and am not particularly technical.

I spent the first two-thirds of Code Name Verity wondering what I was missing, since this novel was so critically acclaimed and honored, even by sources I trust [EDIT: Here, too]. By the end, I certainly got it, but I’m not sure if the ending completely redeemed the novel as a whole.

Best quote: [The BEST one is too spoiler-y, so here’s the second best] “Freedom, oh, freedom. Even with the shortages, and the blackout, and the bombs, and the rules, and daily life so drab and dull most of the time–once you cross the English channel you are free. How simple, and amazing really, that no one in France lives without fear, without suspicion. I don’t mean the straightforward fear of fiery death. I mean the insidious, demoralizing fear of betrayal, of treachery, of cruelty, of being silenced. Of not being able to trust your neighbor or the girl who brings you eggs. Only twenty-one miles from Dover.” (148-149)

Parent/teacher alert: Nazi torture is no picnic to read about, although I am relatively certain that what Verity goes through is a toned-down version of what was actually done to prisoners like her. The climactic scene is disturbingly graphic, but as is true with so much World War II literature, rightfully so.

Read if you liked: Books that emphasize female friendship (Sarah Dessen’s books, although this is a vastly different time period!) and/or kick-butt girl stories (Graceling or Grave Mercy, maybe?) or aviation-themed stuff. Some sites recommend Flygirl if you liked this one, and although I haven’t read it, it looks like it might have some of the same themes. Wikipedia’s article on the Air Transport Auxiliary recommends several titles that are also about the ATA.

Not good for: If you’re not into historical fiction, you’ll really struggle with this one. It’s also not particularly happy, although Verity’s narrative is really humorous at some parts.

What my students think: I haven’t had anyone pick this one up yet, and I’m doubtful it will be a huge hit except to those who really like historical fiction.

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Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed

This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.

Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 9.37.19 PMPublished in: 2003

Pages: 208

The protagonist: Misha Pilsudski, a probably-around-seven Gypsy boy in Warsaw, Poland before, during and immediately after the Nazi invasion. Misha has no family and no recollection of one other than the band of Gypsy boys he survives with. Misha is small and quick and very proud of his ability to snatch food and evade capture.

The gist in 100 words or less: This is the story of the Polish Jews in Warsaw, from invasion to deportation, told by a young child with no loved ones, no frame of reference and no worldly experience whatsoever. It is stunning, heartbreaking, beautiful, inspiring and devastating.

Great stuff: The writing the writing the writing. The story–the invasion of Warsaw by the Nazis, the formation of the famous ghetto, the description of life within it, and the escalation of horrors until the trains come for the deportation, presumably to Treblinka–is shown through the eyes of a young boy who has absolutely no idea, and no context for, this genocide. He wonders if the Nazi invasion might be a parade. He joyfully follows his new Jewish friends as they file into the ghetto, awaiting the wonders that lie behind the wall. And later, he believes that the trains might be coming to take the ghetto occupants to a new village where they can reside in peace.

Meh: Nothing. Obviously it’s not a happy story, and some people (myself included) hesitate to pick up stories like this because of the imminent sadness. I strongly encourage you not to do that in this case.

Best quote: “Gunshots echoed in the streets as Mr. Milgrom said words over the candle flame. The flame gave a faint yellow tint to his frozen breath. Then he sang a song. ‘Sing, Janina,’ he said, but Janina only gave a grunt or two. Then he pulled Janina and me to our feet, and the twins also, and he made us all hold hands and we danced in a circle while Mr. Milgrom sang and the candle flame quivered and somebody screamed in the night.”

Parent/teacher alert: This is serious, serious, crucial, sobering stuff. Have conversations. Recommend other titles. Look up answers to questions. Give hugs.

Read it if you liked: Number the Stars, Stolen Years (looks to be out of print but it is the Holocaust book that stands out most from my childhood), Night, anything else by Jerry Spinelli because he’s amazing.

Not good for: I am from the school of everyone-should-read-this-book-and-books-like-it. I do have students with major mental health struggles/PTSD surrounding death and abuse, and I think they would be the only ones I would recommend/support not picking it up until they are in a better mental place to do so.

What my students think: My literacy class, which is comprised of struggling readers, was absolutely riveted to this story. Misha’s perspective is so limited that it required lots of context-clue prompting and discussion about what exactly he was seeing, but they were enthralled nonetheless.

Margi Preus’s Shadow on the Mountain

Published in: 2012Screen shot 2013-06-06 at 9.38.40 PM

Pages: 286

The protagonist: Espen, ages 14-19, a Norwegian boy spying/working against the Nazis.

The gist in 100 words or less: It’s 1940 and the Nazis have invaded Norway. Espen and his friends are determined to continue the resistance movement by smuggling supplies, conveying encrypted messages and running other errands to support the cause. Espen’s family isn’t even fully aware of his activities, and as the war continues Espen begins to realize that he may be in over his head.

Great stuff: World War II historical fiction has been done and done again, but this is a corner of history that I have never read/thought/talked/knew about. The winter imagery is compelling, especially the nighttime scenes. The chapters are short and the characters very likeable.

Meh: The writing. Espen’s naivetë. The lack of any truly jarring moments, although perhaps I am desensitized since I have read and seen so many books and films about the atrocities of this war (and I’m reading Milkweed with my literacy class right now). The end, for some reason, was also underwhelming.

Best quote: “Anger, hatred, bitterness, fear–those are the emotions that drive the Nazis,” Tante Marie said. “That is what has made them the way they are. Don’t be swallowed up into their darkness. Whatever else you do, my boy, move toward the light” (157).

Parent/teacher alert: It’s a sobering topic that could, and should, lead to conversation. One of Espen’s teammates becomes a Nazi. There is some killing but it’s not graphic, just sad and disturbing.

Read it if you liked: Farewell to Manzanar, Milkweed, or WWII historical fiction in general.

Not good for: Those looking for jam-packed action or those who dislike historical fiction. The fact that this book is about a little-known/often-forgotten part of history is its biggest strength, so if that doesn’t interest you, this one’s probably not for you.

What my students think: This one is admittedly not on the classroom shelves yet. I’ll letcha know!