bookish posts

Code Name Verity revisited

It has been seven years to the day since I first posted about Code Name Verity here.

There are a few stories in the world that bleed backward and forward from their point of origin in your life, so that it almost seems like they have been there forever.

There are a few stories that reach out and grab you from the very first page and keep you in their power well after the cover has been closed.

There are a very few stories that seem so tangible and real that it is still hard to believe that the characters didn’t actually exist, that Maddie never flew a Lysander and Julie never bluffed her way desparately through an impossible situation.

(Fly the plane, Maddie.)

It’s probably obvious that, for me, Code Name Verity is all of those. I’m not a reader who collects second copies of books, but at one point I had three copies of this one, and two of its companion book, Rose Under Fire. It is so intensely personally important that at any given moment I just find myself thinking of a moment, a quote, a character. Still, even after seven years. It happened to me last night when I was driving home in fog.

But it’s not just me. I don’t have any empirical data, but I’ve seen it cited over and over as an influence on other YA writers and readers. It was a book centered on two girls and their friendship at a time when that largely felt rare and impossible. Right now in this year of 2019 we’re having a mini explosion of YA that’s at least billed as feminist, but in 2012, the attention was largely on male authors who perhaps wrote a female main character on their third or fourth book. (But she didn’t have any female friends, of course.)

I am not trying to make a sweeping argument that there were no feminist YA books before CNV, because almost every time we make that kind of “first of its kind” argument, we erase some bit of our history. However, it does feel true to me that in the moment it was published, a book that was so intensely focused on female friendship felt a bit like a thunderbolt and a wake-up call combined.

(We make a sensational team.)

And because it was set in the middle of WWII, a realm that has often been centered on male stories and experiences, CNV was also a way to remind us that women had a place in the middle of the war. As pilots, as spies, as wireless operators, as code-breakers. As Polish Girl Scouts and Russian Night Witches and Jewish resistance fighters. And also as German drivers and camp guards and filmmakers. It doesn’t attempt to tell all those stories, but it resists that idea of the lone woman in a male world that sometimes crops up in historical fiction. It gives a sense that women were everywhere and that all their stories are important, even the ones that aren’t as thrilling.

But most of all, Code Name Verity gave us Maddie and Julie. And I don’t know exactly what to say here except that I love them both so fiercely that there aren’t exactly words for it. Maddie-and-Julie, Julie-and-Maddie. The sensational team. The story is supposed to be about the planes, but it’s always about them. Every twist and every allusion. Flying in silver moonlight, in a plane that can’t be landed. This is a story they’re writing to each other and also creating between themselves; at the same time, it is somehow a story they are creating with us reading. A part of me will always be unflyable, stuck in the climb.