“I am a coward,” the tale begins. “I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. … But now I know I am a coward.”
The narrator, a young woman held prisoner by the Gestapo in an old hotel in Ormaie, France, in October 1943, is buying time for herself, writing her confession in pencil between torture sessions, on elegant hotel stationery, a Jewish doctor’s prescription pads, pages of flute music, recipe cards.
And as she writes, about wireless codes and British airfields, this petite, blond, Scottish version of Scheherazade unfurls the unforgettable tale of her friendship with Maddie, pilot of the plane that dropped her friend in France.
But not all is as it seems in Elizabeth Wein’s “Code Name Verity,” praised by the New York Times as “a fiendishly plotted mind game of a novel” and winner last month of the 2013 Edgar Award for best Young Adult mystery.
“Code Name Verity” is the June selection for The Buffalo News Book Club.
It’s a rare kind of book – a celebration of female friendship set against the backdrop of the bravery and sacrifice required of so many during World War II. And while the situation is dire, our narrator has a lively sense of humor. “Buckets of blood, when do I get to finish my great dissertation of treason?” the prisoner writes, as she spars with, or argues literature with German interrogator Von Linden.
In a recent telephone interview, Wein laughed a bit ruefully at the Times reviewer’s praise of her “fiendish” plotting. “Many of the fiendish elements came to me as aha moments as I was writing,” she said. “I feel kind of guilty about it. It looks as though it was all done with purpose but it wasn’t.”
Her home now is in Perth, Scotland, but she was speaking by phone from her grandmother’s house near Hershey, Pa., during a visit to the United States last month to take in the Los Angeles Times Book Awards, the Edgar Awards and the Agatha Award ceremonies, where her novel was nominated. (It was also a finalist for the American Library Association’s Michael Printz Award for the best young adult novel of the year.)
Although Wein was delighted about winning the Edgar, she admitted to being “baffled” by the mystery nominations for a work of historical fiction. The Mystery Writers of America have a policy of not commenting on their awards process, but “Code Name Verity” has a puzzle at its core that comes as a jolt – along with a heartbreaker of an ending. It’s the kind of novel that demands a second read, which reveals clues that were there all along.
Key plot points, motivation of key characters even, came to her as she was writing, Wein said. “As each of these pieces came to me, I would go back and maybe just feed in a line here and there that sort of tightened it all up. It was like reading a mystery. You’re figuring out as you go along what’s going on.”
While Wein, 48, says she is “officially a ‘Scottish writer’ by virtue of having lived and written in Scotland for more than 10 years,” she was born in New York City and lived as a child in England and then Jamaica, while her father was doing teacher training and setting up Head Start programs. After her parents separated, she and her younger sister and brother moved to Pennsylvania to live with their mother, Carol Flocken. After Flocken was killed in a car accident in 1978, her parents raised the children. Wein’s grandmother will be 97 this month. “She’s slowing down a little, but she’s very awesome,” Wein said.
Wein went to Yale University, returned to England for a work-study year, then spent seven years in Philadelphia getting a doctorate in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. She married an Englishman she met in Philadelphia and moved with him to England in 1995 and to Scotland in 2000. They have two children, Sara, 15, and Mark, 13.
“I have lived in this house several years longer than I’ve ever lived ANYWHERE,” she said. Her only complaint about her adopted homeland is the weather: “Temps hover between 40 and 60 all year and it’s always raining!”
She wrote her first story about a pilot – about a girl who disguises herself as her dead brother and becomes a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain – for a collection titled “Firebirds Soaring” shortly after getting her pilot’s license more than a decade ago. (Her husband, Tim, had gotten his license first.)
“What got me writing about women pilots was because when I was taking flying lessons, I probably wasn’t the only woman who was a student there, but I felt like I was. There weren’t many of us. I was 37. I felt really quite old and frumpy amongst them. I was aware suddenly of how uncommon it was for a woman to be a pilot or to be interested in aviation. It kind of sparked an interest that I’d not had before.”
Her interest in the women who spied for Britain’s Special Operations Executive “black ops” operation came as she was researching the female pilots of Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary and visited an exhibit on women in wartime at the Imperial War Museum in London.
“They had a wireless set that had belonged to one of them, and they had a dress one of them had worn with bullet holes still in it, and they had quotations from these women and transcripts of interviews, and I was really fascinated by them,” she said. “For a long time I had this idea that I was going to have an ATA pilot who became, through circumstance, a spy, and the sort of spark that set me going to write ‘Code Name Verity’ was realizing they were going to be two different people and they were going to be friends.”
Her next book, “Rose Under Fire,” another tale of World War II, is about a female Air Transport Auxiliary pilot who ends up at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. It comes out in September.
Wein laughs when asked about her writing routine: “I don’t have one. My self-discipline is practically nonexistent. I work from home. I have a couple teenage kids. They go out the door at 8 in the morning. Then I have all these really great plans for how I’m going to spend the day. I sit down at the computer at the dining room table and spend three hours researching some detail, like escape compasses which get hidden in a button or a pen, which I then never use in the book. I feel like I waste so much time struggling over trying to get things accurate and so then for the actual writing I end up taking a notebook and a pen and going out to a café somewhere so I cannot be distracted from all the other things that are in my house. I get most of my work done when I’m not actually in the house.”
Her blog at elizabethwein.com is a testament to her many interests – King Arthur, knitting, sewing, flying, the Scottish Wildlife Trust. There’s a photo of her wearing the wool coat she made from an old French pattern. There’s a photo of her in her gold dress at the Edgars and one of the hockey menu at the local ice rink featuring “cheesey chips,” “stovies” and “pies, mince, macaroni, steak & gravy” with the note: “Every. Single Item. On this menu just cracks me up.”
Wein spends a lot of time in ice rinks. “My daughter is a figure skater, and unfortunately the ice rink in Perth is mostly dedicated to curling, so we have go to the next town over, which is Dundee, 20 miles away, for her to skate, three times a week. We’re in Perth because my son curls once a week or twice a week. I started curling this winter and I really like it. It’s like shuffleboard on ice.”
Wein and her husband share their interest in flying and also in change-ringing – the English style of ringing church bells, bells “as big as your stove,” Wein said. “We ring practically every Sunday and every third Saturday” before the church service at Dunkeld, about 12 miles from their home. “And we ring for weddings. Before and after weddings. We get paid for that.”
“Code Name Verity” has been translated into 10 languages. A movie has been optioned. For Wein, the success of “Code Name Verity” has been sweet after the lack of notice for her critically well-received but now mostly out-of-print five-book historical fiction series. “The Winter Prince,” published in 1993, grew out of her “teenage obsession with Arthurian legend,” she said. The other books in her fascinating “Coalition of Lions” series connected Arthurian Britain with the sixth century Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum.
Many current Young Adult novels – among them the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” – imagine very dark dystopian worlds. Wein notes: “I have yet to discover a fictional dystopia more fearful than Auschwitz-Birkenau. Tens of thousands a day were routinely murdered there in the summer of 1944. It’s like trying to understand the size of the universe - you can’t really get your head around it.”
In recognition of “Code Name Verity” being chosen as The Buffalo News Book Club’s June selection, Disney Publishing Worldwide has donated 10 paperbacks, signed by the author, to be given away to Book Club readers. To be considered for a copy, email email@example.com. Or you can write to us by mail, at The Buffalo News, Book Club, 1 News Plaza, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240. Include your name and address, and feel free to tell us why you should win one of the books.