Sunday, December 15, 2013
Code Name Verity vs. Master of Deceit
It bodes well for our burgeoning long-distance Smackdown partnership that Christina and I shared similar takes on both of our books, and this post will echo much of what Christina has already written. One of the things I’ve always found very challenging – and very interesting –about the Smackdown, particularly in the early rounds, is trying to make a sound judgment about books that may have very little in common other than that they have been deemed YA in some way. This was certainly the case with our Code Name Verity versus Master of Deceit opening round. When the books arrived I assumed that a typical apples and oranges comparison had just become apples versus lumberjacks, but surprisingly, I found that despite obvious and profound differences, the books shared a common ethos and were both compelling and thought-provoking reads.
When I read the subtitle of Master of Deceit: America in the Age of Lies plastered over the arresting torn from the headlines cover, it’s perhaps not surprising that my mind jumped to the more sensational aspects of the J. Edgar Hoover story and I approached the reading with less than an open mind. So, I’m going to ask kids to read about a cross-dressing bully in a historical context they have no clue about? Yeah, right! I’m pleased to report that I was wrong and I not only enjoyed the book, but also think it is an accessible and important book for students to read. I had assumed that I had a fairly good working knowledge of this point in American history. You don’t teach The Crucible for 15 years without establishing some foundational knowledge about McCarthy, Hoover et al. but I realize now that my understanding was always one built on fragments and I had never actually read a cohesive piece of writing that brought together all these fragments. Marc Aronson’s book does this and in a way that is clear and accessible and, perhaps surprisingly, does not dwell on some of the more prurient aspects of the J. Edgar Hoover story. Instead, he offers a nuanced and surprisingly wide ranging narrative that presents a cogent argument about why this particular aspect of the American experience is relevant today.
Many years ago, I took an early American literature course and came away with the realization that you cannot understand American culture and its effect on the larger world without understanding the Puritan origins of the land of the free and the home of the brave. Aronson argues, quite successfully, but never pedantically, that our understanding of the post-911 world cannot be complete if we don’t understand Hoover and his far-reaching impact on the American psyche. It is not a long book, so it naturally stops short of being a comprehensive look at the man and the era, but he picks his spots well and if he was aiming to write a book that could be accessed by a broad audience, including young adults, he has been successful. Now, all that being said, I do have some reservations about what kind of readership Aronson’s book is likely to draw from the 140 character, infographic loving, Instagram posting (keep inserting stereotypes at your leisure) set that is a big chunk our current student populace. I think the book would be an excellent one to teach, as there is much that we could explore about style, craft, use of visuals and, most importantly, historical context. The number of students I would recommend the book to with the confidence that he/she would finish it on their own would be limited, however.
This would not be the case with Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, though. As noted above, this book is very different from Master of Deceit and perhaps more in keeping with what those well-versed in the current YA Renaissance would recognize as high-quality teen fiction. Code Name Verity pretty much offers everything you could want from a novel: morally complex, yet extremely likeable protagonists; an interesting historical context framing a complex and often riveting plot; a narrative structure that does justice to the aforementioned complexities and . . . well, I think you probably get the picture. This is a novel that you are going to feel comfortable placing on your shelf with your classics to keep your big E English teacher street cred, but I think it is also a novel that you might be picking up for a friend for Christmas, or earmarking for that kid who totally “gets” great books, but also that kid who has never “got” books until that elusive right one comes along. This might be that book. Code Named Verity offers multiple entry points for readers and I could see myself trying to get this in the hands of very different people for very different reasons. It is not a particularly easy read: one needs to be fully-present to follow the narrative threads and pick up the nuances of the characterization. It is also emotionally wrenching at times with disturbing glimpses of a world at war and all the inherent brutality and callousness that such a world demands. While there are graphic depictions of violence, particularly torture, Wein never presumes to preach at us about the horrors of war, but rather invites us into the intimate discourse of her characters in such a way that we cannot turn away. It is not a perfect book, but do such things even exist? As Christina noted, and this is perhaps inevitable in a book like this, some of the pieces fall into place a little too easily at times, but that is a minor quibble in an exceptional novel. We both agreed that it should move on into the next round. Code Name Verity may be an early front-runner for the Smackdown crown.