Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Under thine own life's key

Back when Mis Hermanas and I were only allowed to watch pre-1970s movies, we ended up watching a lot of WWII films ... and a lot of those were POW movies. (The Great Escape remains to this day the one film I have seen the most in my life, due to watching it every other weekend one summer in middle school.)

There are very few women in war movies. But when we'd play-act or write (we would have "travelling stories" sessions where we'd each write for 10 minutes, then trade and keep finishing each other's stories), we'd insert ourselves or kick-ass girls into the storyline as if their war experience could be equal to those of men.  Once, I even turned in a story in high school about a female pilot shot down over Germany who escapes from a POW camp; my English teacher hailed it as a good idea for story contest and history research project.

So stories about female pilots shot down over occupied Europe in WWII were already familiar terrain for me.

But I read Code Name Verity on the recommendation of a friend, thinking it would be a Spy Kids kind of storyline... or even one along the lines of the Maggie Hope series.

Instead, Code Name Verity had me sobbing for the last few chapters. It's the story of two best friends, female civilian pilots who ferry planes for airborne servicemen to use. When shot down in occupied France, one is captured and tortured for information, and one is not. The story of their friendship and fates is told captivatingly through diaries and journal entries.

The sequel, Rose Under Fire, was actually heavier in content than its predecessor (I didn't think it could be, but it was). Rose is also the story of a female pilot, shot down over Germany towards the end of the war. She is thrown into the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp and shares a bunker with a (real life) group of Polish prisoners who have been the subject of Nazi medical experiments. It evoked memories of specific passages from both Night and Survival in Auschwitz that, even years later, I can never forget.

Wein's writing style reflects the fact that the books are written for young adults, and the characters are all young women in their late teens who are still navigating their place in a male-dominated world. The characters struggle to find -- and maintain --  their own voices amidst chaos and utter brutality: the respective themes of the books are "I have told the truth" and "Tell the world".

The books are heartbreaking and heart-wrenching, but they speak to the simple heroism of survival and the enduring power of friendship. I'm definitely adding these books to my collection of WWII fiction for young adults.

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