Meggie Kenyon is a twelve-year-old girl living in France under Nazi occupation. Her father left home to fight the German army in 1940, and when the book opens in 1942, his fate is unclear. Jennifer A. Nielsen explores the important role that cryptography played during World War II in developing an engrossing plot for young readers, as Meggie attempts to turn her interest in secret codes into a form of active resistance.
Meggie and her father, Harper Kenyon, have always been close. They read poetry together and particularly enjoy creating and solving codes. But when her British father leaves to fulfill his commitment to fighting fascism, their past together becomes a way for Meggie to survive the present and to have hope for a future. Her mother, Sylvie, is French, as is Meggie’s grandmother, whose farm becomes their home when Harper Kenyon disappears. Meggie is at home in both the English and French languages. Even the way her mother pronounces her name, which is short for Margaret, is evidence of the difference between her parents and the way in which she shares much in common with both of them.
Once it becomes clear that Meggie’s father is not the only member of the family to be engaged in dangerous resistance activities, she decides to take an active role as well. Her parents’ values encourage her bravery, but the daily risks and frightening events in her life create dramatic tension in the story. Most chapters begin with a rule, a brief epigrammatic expression that frames her mission to save a family of refugees, Liesel, Jakob, and Albert and to find her father. “People are individuals, not categories,” and “Everyone has reasons for the things they do” may seem like philosophical statements, but they are also practical clues about how to confront the dilemma she is trying to resolve. Meggie needs to constantly readjust her assessments of people and also to imagine different solutions to the verbal codes that she hopes will lead her to success.
The Jewish content of the book remains in the background. No characters are Jewish, but Meggie is fully aware of the arrest and deportation of Jews in France. Watching helplessly as people who had believed they were safe in France are abandoned by their neighbors, she becomes embittered at how quickly and easily the Nazis had been able to occupy France and impose their racial laws. As she realizes with irony, “Our government in Vichy protested…but only because the Germans had not gone far enough.”
Readers will share Meggie’s sense of urgency as she scrutinizes the possible meanings of each word in a letter, knowing that it is intended to instruct her about her mission. Deciphering codes, as well as unraveling the mysteries of people, lead her to her work’s conclusion.
The book includes a section on secret codes and background information about the British Special Operations Executive during World War II.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.