Some books we remember because they were amazing (or unspeakable, but we hope to forget those, don’t we?). Some books we remember because of the circumstances under which we read them. I had a friend who treasured her copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban not because she is a Potter nut (I’m not sure she read any of the other books) but because she read it as her father lay dying.
I reached that moment recently with my mother, who lived a good, long life filled with books and who died comfortably. No matter how in tune with the order of things her death was, though, those last moments cannot be anything other than sad for me. Which is why I am tremendously grateful for the two spectacular books that carried me through her passing and its aftermath: The FitzOsbornes at War, the conclusion of Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals, and Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.
I couldn’t have done better if I’d been planning literary entertainment for my mother’s deathbed. (I wasn’t; I had packed these for my vacation and they just came with me when I learned of my mother’s decline.) A confirmed Anglophile who came of age during World War II, she would’ve been captivated by these novels about young British women at war.
Well, Princess Sophie, who narrates The FitzOsbornes at War, is actually Montmaravian, but she couldn’t sound more English if she tried. She and the rest of the Montmaravian royal family—her brother, King Toby; her schoolgirl sister, Henry (short for Henrietta); her beautiful cousin Veronica; and her illegitimate cousin Simon—have been living in England with her spectacularly rich aunt Charlotte (sister to the late king) since the Nazis overran the chunk of rock in the Bay of Biscay they call their kingdom. As members of an Allied nation, they all do their part. Toby and Simon join the RAF; Spanish-speaking Veronica works for the Foreign Office; tomboy Henry agitates to join the Wrens; Sophie patriotically toils at the Ministry of Food and does a little reluctant espionage on the side.
Though the humor in the setup is undeniable, Cooper expertly balances it against the pathos of the Battle of Britain. Even as Sophie wryly describes her work on pamphlets extolling the virtues of carrots (and the incompetent boss who anti-corrects her punctuation), she chronicles the Blitz and the toll it takes on London’s infrastructure and morale.
“…London is more battered and dreary than ever there is still the occasional air raid—not long ago, a school was hit in broad daylight, killing dozens of children and their teachers. At the start of the year, Mr. Churchill and Mr. Roosevelt announced they would only accept ‘unconditional surrender’ from Germany….I suppose this means the war will drag on for years and years. I cannot even remember ‘normal life.’ It seems incredible that there was ever a time when children played in Kensington Gardens, when shops displayed pyramids of oranges and lemons, when streetlights blazed out at night. The past has vanished….”
Though naturally frivolous, her voice is never less than intelligent, but it dampens its ebullience as the war drags on, growing ever heavier with tragedies both national and personal. Readers who have stuck with Sophie and her family from the beginning will feel each of them almost as viscerally as she does.
Readers don’t learn the name of Code Name Verity’s first narrator (there are two) till very late, but they will be captivated by her from her very first line: “I AM A COWARD.” Written at the behest of the SS officer in charge of her interrogation, the WAAF-turned– Special Operations officer’s record of both her time as a “guest” of the Gestapo and the magical friendship she shares with Maddie, a civilian pilot who flies for the Air Transport Auxiliary, mesmerizes. Often mordantly funny as she describes her relationship with her interrogators, she waxes gloriously lyrical as she describes what they are fighting for.
“Maddie flew back [from Lindisfarne] following the 70-mile 2,000-year-old dragon’s back of Hadrian’s Wall, to Carlisle and then south through the Lakeland fells, along Lake Windermere. The soaring mountains rose around her, and the poets’ waters glittered beneath her in the valleys of memory—hosts of golden daffodils, Swallows and Amazons, Peter Rabbit. She came home by way of Blackstone Edge above the old Roman road to avoid the smoke haze over Manchester, and landed back at Oakway, sobbing with anguish and love; love, for her island home that she’d seen whole and fragile from the air in the space of an afternoon, from coast to coast, holding its breath in a glass lens of summer and sunlight.”
Wein’s narrative is far trickier than Cooper’s, laying red herrings for all of its readers, soothing them and betraying them by turns. Nevertheless, Sophie and Maddie and her friend all spin tales that illuminate, entertain and beguile.
Both were amazing, and both were there when I needed them: Thank you, Michelle Cooper and Elizabeth Wein, for your books.
Vicky Smith is the children's and teen editor at Kirkus.