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Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein  code name verity

This is a must-read for teens. And for adults. It’s no more only a ‘teen book’ than The Book Thief is a ‘teen book.’ Never mind how the publisher describes it. Read it.

Since Code Name Verity deals with espionage, it is hard to give you too much summary—this is one book that will be ruined by that. So—I want you to trust me. There’s everything to love here. Oh—trust the Printz Award Committee as well—it’s a Printz Award Honor book.

The basics: A couple of young women become great friends in World War II. They are British—but don’t call the Scottish girl English of you’re in big trouble. One is a pilot, who normally taxis planes for the male pilots, who use them in battle. The other is a telegraph operator. But both are required to serve both secretly and dangerously as the war effort becomes a struggle and Nazi Germany may well overcome all of Europe. Britain is Europe’s final hope.

In a flight over Nazi-occupied France, the fighter plane that the young women are in crashes. The survivor is held captive by the Nazis and tortured for information.  She is required to write information down, but she includes a narrative of how she and her friend arrived at the moment of the crash.

This book is about true bravery—courage in the face of incredible adversity, and not just of the two main characters, but of all sorts of ordinary British servicemen and citizens as well as ordinary French folk who aid the French Resistance. And even a few double-agent Nazis.

Sometimes we say there is a breathtaking moment in a book or a movie, and we don’t mean it literally. In Code Name Verity, think of literally sucking in your breath at the shock and being unable to let it out.

Code Name Verity deals with individual acts, courage, and moral ambiguity.

High school housekeeping: I recommend this book for all readers. You’ll learn something about WWII in Europe and the roles of both women and men. The afterword by the author, where she tells us about how she did her research, and how she decided which scenes would be credible and which scenes would have to be left out,  is great stuff. You can use this as a fictional springboard to do your own research on many issues from WW II—the Royal Air Force, the French Resistance, women in WW II, fighter pilots, Britain during the war, etc.

A little note on the use of the word ‘fag’ in the novel: As you are American teens, you may wonder at the word ‘fag’ used throughout the book—how people are trading them, giving them as gifts, etc. No worries—in Britain (and I believe this is still true) ‘fag’ is a common term for cigarette. In fact, there’s a history behind that use and the derogatory use of the word for a gay man. You could research it. Very sad.

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The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring by Jennet Conant  irregulars

Most of us know Roald Dahl through his weirdly fun children’s stories. Even if you haven’t read those stories, you’ve probably seen some of the movies made from Dahl’s work—James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, Willy Wonka (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). But Dahl’s entire life was wildly interesting, and his stint as a British spy in the United States during World War II is as engaging a story as anything he wrote for children.

The British Security Coordination had a secret mission to get the United States involved in World War II. The Irregulars, as these British spies in America were known, were named after characters in Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries.

This might seem odd now, but at the time (1939-40), there were many Americans who were isolationists and didn’t believe that the war was a U.S. problem. Unfortunately, there were also some famous anti-Semitic people (the popular aviation hero Charles Lindberg among them) who were Nazi sympathizers. A Canadian spymaster named William Stephenson (nicknamed Intrepid) was tasked with making Americans believe that the war was a danger to them. He and the Irregulars were to create sympathy for the British, and with that sympathy, generate funds for the fight in Europe.

So what to do? Well, it might surprise those of us without connections to power, but a lot of the work was achieved on the ‘cocktail circuit,’ that is, at parties in the homes of the very rich and very powerful. The Irregulars would spread lies through influential people. These men had to be suave enough to be invited to such parties. Dahl was not only very good looking. He was also a war hero—a pilot in the Royal Air Force whose military career ended with a crash—and a great storyteller (a very useful skill at a dinner table full of strangers). He was not the only interesting man on the job. Handsome Ian Fleming, creator of the fictional spy James Bond—007—was among the group. Needless to say, he loved tools that contained secret weapons, such as a pen that ejected gas. Other Irregulars were willing to try out spy tools such as truth serum. (That was an experiment gone wrong—one of the many entertaining parts of the book.)

The Irregulars passed more than gossip. To get then President Roosevelt to push for loans (and the Lend-Lease Act) for the British, the BSC created a map of South America and made U.S. officials believe it was a Nazi product. It showed how Nazi Germany planned to split up South America, including the (then U.S. controlled) Panama Canal. In fact, they’d do just about anything, including sleeping with married women and passing on false information.

Most of what they did worked. Reading about allies who were secretly (well, sort of) working to alter the course of the U.S. policies is surprising fun. A lot of U.S. citizens might have resented this ‘spying’ if they had known about it. J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t too thrilled. But from our current perspective, it’s amusing stuff, and knowing the how and why of the BSC will help you learn about truly important events from World War II.

High school housekeeping: If your history teacher asks you to read nonfiction, particularly about WW II, this is a great choice. It’s a little longer than some choices at nearly 400 pages.  But you’ll see how a well-researched document can be highly entertaining. You’ll learn about the BSC, but you find information on so much more as well. And Dahl and his friend are so much larger than life—not always in a good way—that you’ll find them quite human and fallible while deeply admiring their talents and their place in history. You’ll encounter several famous people, get some interesting background on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and learn other facts of Dahl’s biography—his success in writing, helped along by a very rich American mentor, and his life with actress Patricia Neal. Not bad for a single book.

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 Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand unbroken

Unbroken is the incredible, nearly mythic, story of Louis Zamperini, an army air forces bomber whose plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean in 1943. Before the war, he had been an Olympic miler, and probably would have been the first man to break the four-minute mile if the war had not intervened.

 

Louie and his raft mates survived more than a month on the Pacific Ocean—through starvation and dehydration, shark attacks, and even a strafing by a Japanese bomber. One of Zamperini’s raft mates finally succumbed to starvation and the elements. Louie and the other, ‘Phil’ Allen Phillips, viewed land after forty-seven days at sea in the life raft. Unfortunately, they were spotted by a Japanese boat crew and taken prisoner. From the boat, they were sent to Kwajalein—or as it was commonly known, ‘Execution Island.’

 

On Execution Island, the true hell of their POW experience began. ‘The crash of The Green Hornet had left Louie and Phil in the most desperate physical extremity, without food, water or shelter. But in Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity.”

 

Both Louie and Phil were moved from one POW prison to another, always without being registered with the Red Cross so that no one would know they were alive. They were consistently mistreated. Having no other information, the army reported to their families that they were dead.

 

In the 1940s, the Japanese considered it shameful to be a prisoner of war and many Japanese soldiers killed themselves rather than be captured. When they captured Allied soldiers, they often felt that they were fair game for abuse. Because of this, Allied POWs in the Pacific fared far worse than those in Europe.

 

“The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity . . ..  Tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, anemia, eye ailments, and festering wounds were widespread. [In one survey], 77 percent of POWs [were found to have] wet beriberi . . .. Among Canadian POWs, 84 percent had neurologic damage . . .. Men had been crippled and disfigured by unset broken bones, and their teeth had been ruined by beatings and years of chewing grit in their food. Others had gone blind from malnutrition.”

 

Louie, Phil, and their fellow POWs suffered all these ailments and more because they are starved and tortured. In the Omori POW camp, outside Tokyo, the men fell under the cruel persecution of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (‘The Bird’). The Bird is a true sociopath, brutalizing men one minute, possibly asking for forgiveness the next, and getting sexual pleasure from administering brutal beatings, clubbings and grotesque punishments involving excrement. He particularly hated Louie, singled him out and beat him, sometimes with a belt buckle, every day.

 

That anyone could have survived such terror appears miraculous.

 

 

Some of your teachers ask me to look for biographies or memoirs of inspirational Americans. I bought Unbroken awhile back when it was getting stellar reviews. Then it became a longtime bestseller. I’m so glad I finally had the chance to read it myself. (Sometimes it seems that this is what my summer break is for. 🙂) Not only is it one of the best biographies I’ve read, but it also has the long list of acknowledgements and endnotes that give you an understanding of what serious research looks like.

 

If you are looking for inspiration, just read the two-page forward of this book. You’ll be hooked.

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