Maureen is a library assistant who blogs at By Singing Light. Elizabeth Wein is one of her favorite authors and today, she talks about the theme of courage present in all of EWein’s novels.
Please join me in welcoming Maureen to EWein Special Ops!
“I AM A COWARD,” Verity says right at the beginning of her story. “I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was… But now I know that I am a coward.”
Of course, the truth is more complicated. In fact, one of the brilliant things about Code Name Verity is the way it shows you a character who claims to be one thing, a coward, while disproving that again and again. To be frank, thinking about her bravery, the sheer audacity of it, takes my breath away and moves me to tears at the same time.
But it’s not just Verity herself. There’s Marie, the French Resistance lassie, and Mitraillette and the rest of the Thibauts. There’s Anna Engel, risking her life every time she does not translate exactly what is written, giving Maddie a scarf. And Georgia Penn, speaking of audacity. Read her scene again and think about the courage it would take for both her and Verity to enact that careful dance of words and movements. There’s Maddie, finding the strength to do the hardest thing, and then to keep living afterwards. And there’s Queenie’s mother, leaving the window open.
(Pause to mop up.)
But bravery is a strand that runs through all of Elizabeth Wein’s books. In Rose Under Fire, there are not heroics in the usual sense, in the Verity sense. The bravery there is required to keep living, to stay human under circumstances that are designed to keep you from doing either. It’s perhaps quieter than Code Name Verity, but it is just as present and just as intense. Starving women standing for hours in the snow rather than giving each other up.
It’s in The Winter Prince, in Lleu struggling against sleep and Medraut struggling against the darkness in himself. It’s in A Coalition of Lions, in Goewin leaving Britain behind, setting out alone into the unknown. Certainly it’s in The Sunbird — like Verity, Telemakos leaves me breathless. And in The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom, he must find a different kind of courage to win through a situation that looks impossible.
It seems to me that in all of the books, courage is one of the markers that point us toward the moral characters. When so many of them occupy a morally grey area, it is a signpost that tells us who deserves our care. Von Linden and Anako fail their tests; they do not even have the bravery to do their own dirty work. (Von Linden is a much more complex character than Anako, but in a way that makes his failure greater.) Even Nick, in Rose Under Fire, doesn’t have the courage to wait for Rose. On the other hand, Anna Engel acts with courage, as does Medraut. It’s this quality that sets them on the other side of that line.
It’s worth noting that the kind of courage I’m talking about, the kind that these books value, is not the same as honor. It’s not even necessarily physical courage, although it can be (in The Sunbird, for example). It’s not limited by age — see Telemakos and Amelie Thibaut — or by gender — see EVERYONE. Not the courage to fight the war or fire the gun, but the courage to do what is right, to face darkness internal or external and not give in. It’s the strength to keep going, to fly the plane.
This courage is not found in isolation. The friendship at the heart of Code Name Verity is not an accident. Verity retells the story of Queenie-and-Maddie, the sensational team, precisely because it gives her strength. Outside of that bond, Mitraillette is the one who keeps Maddie together in those frightful first days after the bridge. For Rose, in Ravensbruck, it’s Irina and Roza especially, but the whole of Block 32, which “was really, really good at propping people up.” Even Telemakos in Abreha’s palace is driven by Athena, proves himself with the other palace children.
And it’s Goewin and Telemakos under the city, drawing pictures on each others’ hands to chase away the darkness. It’s not an accident that the image of hands keeps showing up, from Arthur’s hands on Medraut’s shoulders in The Winter Prince, to A Coalition of Lions. And again in Code Name Verity with Marie and Verity (“the backs of our hands were touching”); on the cover of the US edition; with a hand on Maddie’s shoulder while she flies. And yet again when Rose and Irina share that secret symbol of who they are: taran. Wein’s books consistently undermine the narrative of lone heroes: again and again, we see that we are saved in the company of others, that in the dark places the important thing is who stands beside you.
After all, that’s what stories — the best stories — are. A light to see by, a hand holding yours in the dark.
Thank you, Maureen! I love that last line.