If you recognize the quotation I stole for the title of this post, you’ve probably read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. That much-hyped 2012 YA novel is the WWII story of two young British women, one a spy and one a pilot, whose mission in Nazi-occupied France goes devastatingly wrong. One of the most beautiful parts of the novel is the fast friendship between Maddie, the pilot from a working class Jewish family, and Julie, the spy from an aristocratic Scottish family. I don’t mean to denigrate the book by calling it “much-hyped”; I thought it was wonderful, and having reread it this year I can attest that it holds up.
Elizabeth Wein followed up Code Name Verity with the equally, if not more, impressive Rose Under Fire, about Rose Justice, a young American pilot and poet who winds up in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and Black Dove, White Raven, about two more young pilots in 1935 Ethiopia. (Can I just say that when I realized the author of Code Name Verity was also the author of the series that included A Coalition of Lions and that combined Arthurian legend with the history of the kingdom of Aksum–a series that I read and enjoyed when I was much younger–my mind was blown?) And this year, Wein published The Pearl Thief, a mystery and prequel to Code Name Verity that stars a younger Julie in her native Scotland and features Scottish river pearls and Scottish Travellers. I loved The Pearl Thief, and when I finished it I discovered I had Thoughts.
From here on out, spoilers abound.
In The Pearl Thief, we learn that Julie is bisexual. She spends her sixteenth summer flirting with an older man for fun, but she also falls somewhat in love with Ellen, a Scottish Traveller girl. (As an aside, I loved Julie and Ellen’s friendship almost as much as I loved Julie and Maddie’s friendship.) As I said, I really liked The Pearl Thief, but after reading it I wondered if I was supposed to reinterpret the central friendship in Code Name Verity in light of Julie’s bisexuality. Out of curiosity, I went hunting around the internet to see what folks might have said about the two books in relation to each other. Some people said that in Code Name Verity it was already obvious (or at least lurking in the subtext) that Julie was queer. This was news to me, but I can be obtuse about such things. So Julie and Maddie share this marvelous friendship, but maybe Julie is also (a little) in love with Maddie? She is the one who writes, “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”
I found myself wondering if I was disappointed that Julie and Maddie’s friendship in Code Name Verity might not be “just” a friendship. I don’t think I was, exactly. I think one can interpret Code Name Verity in many ways, and different interpretations can be right. Also, I recognize that the distinctions between different kinds of love can be hazy, and that’s something that is in itself worth portraying in literature. But the reason I felt this twinge of potential disappointment was because I want there to be stories about close friendships that are “just” friendships and don’t veer towards romance, or have a romantic subtext, or involve romantic feelings on the part of at least one of the friends. I don’t even like saying “just” friendship because friendship isn’t something less than! I truly was disappointed when the friendship in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe turned into “something more” (again, why more?! Let’s say “something different”), even though I also loved that book. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about. I just want friendships that are friendships and are infinitely precious for being so!
I don’t know how Elizabeth Wein conceived of Julie and Maddie’s relationship in Code Name Verity. Whatever she thought is valid for her, and however anyone else reads it is valid for them. I also don’t think Wein wrote The Pearl Thief in order to make people look at Code Name Verity and see its central friendship differently (although I can’t pretend to know what any author’s intentions actually were). Part of the reason I wouldn’t say I was really disappointed is because the possibility of romantic feelings on Julie’s part doesn’t negate the beauty of the friendship she and Maddie share. Both can exist at once. They are friends, and I think that’s the core of their relationship. In The Pearl Thief too, Julie and Ellen are friends, whatever else they might feel for each other.
I can’t even complain too much because I myself have written stories with these sorts of ambiguous friendships (i.e. friendships that might also be romances but maybe aren’t). I do think there’s a place for them. There’s room for everything in stories! So I do like to read about ambiguous relationships, but I’d also like there to be stories where it’s clear that what two characters share is purely friendship. I tried to think of examples, and all I’ve come up with is Siobhan and Owen in E. K. Johnston’s The Story of Owen and Prairie Fire (fantastic books, by the way). Bard Siobhan and dragon slayer Owen are friends, and there is no doubt they are very close and love each other deeply. If you can offer more examples of close fictional friendships, particularly in YA (I’m sure there are some, including ones I’m just forgetting), I’d like to hear them. I’m also curious if anyone else has thoughts on this general subject.