Another conversation about why CODE NAME VERITY is ALL MANNER OF EXCELLENT.

An IM conversation about the 2013 Printz Award winner devolves into a conversation about why Elizabeth Wein’s CODE NAME VERITY is ALL MANNER OF EXCELLENT.

Featuring your humble correspondent, and Jenny of Jenny’s Library.

We are not concerned hereunder with spoilers, so if you haven’t read CNV? We’re going to ruin the ending for you.


Jenny: I kinda want to read In Darkness [by Nick Lake] and compare it to Monster [by Walter Dean Myers]

Because Monster? is about a boy on trial for murder

And we spend much of the book not knowing if he’s guilty or not

(and in the end, it’s still uncertain – it’s debatable)

but on the first page of In Darkness we have the narrator saying “I first shot a man when I was twelve years old.”

So we have one book that’s not just about young men of color and the violence in their lives, but more importantly the extent to which our perceptions of young men of color and violence affects how society treats them, and what kinds of chances they get

And I suspect In Darkness will only be about the first, at best

and also – there’s something about how they are both addressing their audience

(Code Name Verity too)

Despite the very different reasons for Steve and Verity writing, there’s something similar in how they’re addressing their audience

in the extent to which the writers writing these characters allow the personalities of young people to come through

and I’ve only read the first page of In Darkness

but the character here is addressing it’s readers much differently

in a way that’s much more removed and lacking that same kind of personality

which means it’s lacking that closeness and humanity

intimacy I guess is the better word

Liz: Maybe Lake just sucks at voice

Jenny: This is quite possible!

I suspect that the amount of potential for disrespect involved in presuming to tell this story has something to do with it as well

Any decently smart reader can figure out within the first page or two of Monster and Verity

that Wein is using the lowered expectations we have for young women in order to take us by surprise later

while Myers is showing the lowered expectations we have for young men of color in order to ask us to do better

but what is Lake doing?

other than confirming what we already think about young men of color

also

the main takeaway from Lake’s first page is that he wants us to be shocked and feel sympathetic

but Verity and Monster – while the shock is there, the main points are empathy and respect

Liz: Yes

I mean, I do not know from Monster

Jenny: heh

well, and I’m more going from what I remember about the book, than the first page, which I don’t remember precisely

Liz: But in CNV, we are shocked by what is happening to Julie, and only later realise that it isn’t exactly as straightforward as it seems.

There is a layered playing with empathy there.

Jenny: Yes

in both books

Liz: Particularly with respect to Anna Engel and the German officer.

Because both of them are broken by the same system that is breaking Julie, even as they’re complicit in it

Jenny: Monster is a mix of journal entries, and then what’s happening to Steve written out in screenplay – as if he’s detached from his own trial

and it’s an unreliable narrator in ways

except the point is to force us to ask ourselves just why we really don’t trust him, why the people in his life don’t trust him

rather than to use our trust to lie and make us believe it

but the going back and forth from journal and screenplay

it has the same sort of intimacy and detachment that Verity does through her letters, but then spending so much time talking about herself in third person in them

and they both exist in the story for similar and yet very different goals, the characters in the story are doing the detaching thing for the same reason

because they are scared and ashamed

Liz: I do not find shame in Code Name Verity

Not in retrospect

You know how she goes on about what a shameful coward she is? And in retrospect it’s such a goddamn effective misdirect

Jenny: Verity has clarified for me why I like unreliable narrators in young adult novels, but rarely like them in adult novels. because in young adults novels, they are more often about identity, and young adult’s identity is much more in flux, so often lying is just as honest in terms if who they are as telling the truth is.

Yes, no

Let me try to clarify?

Liz: Because she’s terrified but not broken, and that playing with shame, playing on the image of (socially-sanctioned as female) weakness, is a way of convincing her interrogators she is broken

While at the same time?

Doing the exact same thing to the reader.

Jenny: I think maybe more mad at herself is more what I meant?

Liz: And then pulling out the goddamn rug.

Jenny: Because she is mad at herself for getting caught

At least I think she is

Liz: I think that rolls together into angry+terrified at the whole situation to me.

Jenny: Yes, that’s maybe a better way of putting it

Liz: And the distancing effect is a way of… well, it’s a resist-interrogation technique, isn’t it?

Compartmentalisation.

Jenny: Yes – which is what Steve is doing too

Liz: Pretending it’s happening to someone else

That’s part of what makes CNV so effective

Jenny: *nods*

Liz: Because, well.

EVERYTHING about it?

From Julie’s POV?

Is doing about seven different things at once.

It is dense in terms of effective technique.

Jenny: Fuck yes

Liz: (and affective technique, to boot)

Jenny: which is why I look at In Darkness and just go O.o

because maybe it will surprise me?

but I’ll bet it won’t be a quarter as good at telling the story of the violence in the lives of young men of color as Monster does

and Verity does some of the same things that Monster does but better

it’s much more clever

Another thing I’d like to add:

I haven’t had a favorite book since childhood because once I got to my teen years, so few of them touched me in quite the same way, or stayed with me for as long. I could never pick and “favorite” was always changing

I suspect that CNV will be my favorite for a very long time (relatively speaking)

like, I’m obsessing over this story in a way I haven’t in years

(except for maybe PC Hodgell’s Kencyrath books)

I mean, Bujold was awesome and distracting and all, but I dunno how to describe it

the difference, I mean

Liz: The difference between your response to Wein and to Bujold’s stuff, what do you mean?

Jenny: Well, this sounds slightly silly?

but it feels more life changing

like, I’m very glad I’ve read Bujold’s books

they will always be favorites

they made me think about things in new ways

but…. CNV feels different somehow

Liz: Is it because it doesn’t flinch?

Because that’s what did it for me.

Jenny: that’s definitely part of it

Liz: It takes all your expectations that a book like this is not actually going to go there

Jenny: and it goes places even worse

Liz: And then it goes there. Into that moment that combines perfect horror with unlooked-for grace.

Jenny: Not precisely?

I think it’s more because it redefines what it means to love someone that much

perhaps because I’ve grown up on too much Hollywood?

Liz: “It’s like falling in love, finding your best friend”?

Jenny: Yes, but also… in choosing to shoot Julie, Maddie is choosing to love her friend over loving herself

Maybe that’s not the best way to put it? But Maddie gives up trying to be Julie’s hero

Because it’s more important to her to do what Julie needs than what Maddie wishes she could do  (not that Maddie actually wanted to be Julie’s hero, precisely, but you get the idea)

in that moment, Maddie chooses the pain and guilt of having failed her best friend in the world over letting her friend spend even one more moment in pain

and that’s a much bigger sacrifice than risking her life for the chance to save both of them

Liz: Or fail to save either.

Jenny: yes

Liz: Yeah

Jenny: and…maybe this sounds stupid?

but it feels like a very… female perspective on war and battle

and what it really means

not that this story couldn’t happen – doesn’t happen – among men?

like, the traditional male perspective is that one is risking one’s life for one’s loved ones back home, watching your friends die doing the same

Liz: Mercy, and survival, and the fact that some fates really are worse that death but that the death part doesn’t actually hurt any less because of that?

Jenny: Yeah

I think also – the difference between war that you go somewhere else to make, and war that brings itself to you

because while women have always fought! and they fight in far off places – the war that women fight does tend to more often be war where the battlefield is your own home

at least, that’s my impression?

and when it comes to losing loved ones, friends, making sacrifices…

There’s just something about not having the comfort of knowing your family is safe back home that’s different, and that comes through not just in Maddie and Julie’s friendship, but their fears.

It’s more just that… I’ve known that war is different when it isn’t sending troops elsewhere?

but my own country hasn’t lived that in generations and it shows in the shitty choices we make

and this is a perspective we need more of because war is always in someone’s home

and because it’s not a perspective that my country has lived in generations, I may know it, but I don’t know it

It’s a fundamentally NOT White American Male perspective on war<

So, yeah, it actually pisses me off more now that In Darkness got the medal and CNV just got an honor

because based on the sample that I’ve seen I don’t see it challenging that perspective.

That war is Over There.


Further thoughts are invited from all comers.

5 thoughts on “Another conversation about why CODE NAME VERITY is ALL MANNER OF EXCELLENT.

  1. As a huge Code Name Verity/Elizabeth Wein fangirl, let me say how much I LOVE THIS POST. It is so smart and so on point with all the things that make that book great.

    What’s interesting is that the first time I read CNV (I’ve reread it and listened to the absolutely fantastic audiobook since then), I was prepared for The Worst because I’d read Wein’s earlier books and I already knew she doesn’t flinch away from the hard things. Obviously, I hoped it might end differently, but I knew whatever ending we had wouldn’t be tied up with a pretty ribbon. Instead it’s “a part of me is always unflyable, stuck in the climb”. And yet she crafts the story so well that even without that expectation, it works.

    Into that moment that combines perfect horror with unlooked-for grace.
    I think that sums up both that moment in CNV, and perhaps the whole of ROSE.

    I will stop blathering, especially since I am a random stranger from the internet, but thank you again.

  2. @Maureen Eichner:

    Polite enthusiastic random strangers from the internet are always welcome here!

    I’ve read Rose – and, yes. There’s also, I think, a theme running through both books about the importance of bearing witness to the (as Charlotte Delbo had it) suffering that has no limit, the horror without frontiers. I may be reading that back into CNV, though.

    (I don’t want to spoil Rose for Jenny, or I would say more!)

  3. I don’t think you’re reading back at all, although it’s there in different ways. And I won’t say anything more. Careless talk costs lives.

  4. Regarding bearing witness as a theme, I agree that you aren’t reading that back into CNV at all. That was one of the things I was trying to say about Julie’s stories about Maddie the other day (but in different words, and it got lost among all the other things).

    At a certain point Julie really believes Maddie is dead, and even before that point she knows it’s likely Maddie is dead. It seemed to me that Julie’s stories about Maddie were her way of both spending time with her friend and creating a record of who Maddie was. (In addition to the misdirection – for us and von Linden.)

    And then when the unthinkable happens, Julie’s notes become a way for Maddie and the other people who loved her to bear witness to who she was, and what she lived through and how she died. And the book, of course, is in turn attempting to bear witness to all the courage and sacrifices and hope and love and loss and lives and deaths of the real young women who had the jobs that Maddie and Julie did.

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