In Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein’s compelling tale of friendship during WWII, the main characters are two young women: a Scottish aristocrat-spy and a Manchester-born transport pilot. As the novel begins, the spy—her code name is Verity—has been captured by the Nazis and forced to confess everything she knows, or she won’t live to tell another tale. But not everything is as it seems. We would tell you more—but “careless talk costs lives.” Believe us, you want to know what happens next.
After we read all about Verity and her best friend, Maddie, we asked Elizabeth to tell us more about the amazing, real-life roles women played in World War II. Elizabeth did us one better and got someone who was really there to give us the on-the-ground lowdown. Here’s Elizabeth, first:
The virtual manuscript that exists inside Code Name Verity is something that has a weird shadow-life of its own in my mind. I loved playing with the idea of the narrators scrounging for paper and writing materials—of the physical existence of the “real” book, written by Verity, which ends up safely and lovingly preserved in the library of Craig Castle, her family home. So I thought I would turn this assignment over to Verity herself.
Plus I wanted to give her a say in what is was like to write this book, because—well, deep in my heart, her thoughts about writing Code Name Verity are indistinguishable from my own. So here she is—Verity herself, on women’s roles in wartime, and on writing Code Name Verity, in her own words:
“WOMEN’S ROLES IN WARTIME, 1943”
Talking about this topic makes me really rather proud to be British. We got battered with anti-Nazi propaganda during my Special Operations Executive training, and quite frankly I would be EMBARRASSED if, like German women, the only things my King and Country were asking me to do for the war effort were the “three Ks”—Kinder, Küche, Kirche. (That’s “kiddies, kitchen, and kirk.” All right, “children, kitchen, and church.” But you have to admit it translates better in Scots than in English.)
Fräulein Engel, who is translating this document and forever reading over my shoulder, has assured me that the Three K’s are neither current nor Nazi policy, but she has also admitted that there is an astonishing thing called the “Cross of Honor of the German Mother,” which is awarded to you if you have four babies. Or more.
Four babies or more. For a state decoration! It makes being half-choked to death by an enemy undercover agent seem easy. (That is what I got my state decoration for.)
But as a British woman, I could have done anything. I mean, I might not have been able to get a medal for it, but short of actually being a serviceman on active duty, I could have trained at and done any man’s job I’d wanted, because all the men are busy fighting. Of course, I did train as a radio operator, but I could have been an aircraft mechanic, or a parachute packer, or worked in any number of factories, or learned to drive ambulances. If I’d been a nurse I might have been posted to the front lines when the invasion finally comes. I could have driven my own ambulance to the front. I have an older cousin (a woman) who was awarded a Military Medal for driving an ambulance in the last war, in 1918.
But I bet back in Germany, even the women with four babies are working as field hands, just the way our British Land Girls are. And I know that Germany’s most daring and accomplished test pilot, Hanna Reitsch, is a woman. Really, though, neither Germany nor Britain is as broadminded as the Russians. They let women fly fighter planes into combat.
Oh—I talk so high-mindedly, but all I’m really doing—all I’ll be remembered for—is this story. I know it is the only thing I’ll ever write—the only thing that matters. I feel as though all the writing I’ve ever done, all the school history essays, the tentative attempts at sonnets, the rambling letters to Mother and Jamie and Maddie, the dreadfully immature adventure stories and the earnest Dramatic Society plays, the brave, witty articles for the Maidsend Aerodrome Officer’s Club newsletter—all of it was only preparation for this—this tremendous manuscript I am writing now. It is meant as a confession but I want it to be as good as a novel. It is my one and only chance at literary perfection—I want it to outlive me. I want it to be my masterpiece—my Finest Hour.
I suppose I am fooling myself. But I wouldn’t be able to write it otherwise.