The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein

Review by Louise Brecht

Penguin Teen, November 2020

448 pages, paperback, $16.99 CDN, 978-0735265288

Ages 12+, Grades 7+

Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Action/Adventure

[Sergeant Elizabeth Lind] laughed wildly.

“Proper little secret society!” she gasped. “My God! Do you know how many scores of codebreakers are frantically trying to crack this technology?”

“No,” I whispered. “How could we?”

Louisa Adair didn’t know what Sergeant Lind was talking about. None of them did, not really. They’d only wanted to save lives, not hoard the machine that is the key target of a massive British Intelligence operative. How could they have known?

After all, the 15-year-old war orphan and her rag-tag group of co-conspirators are sequestered in the north-east reaches of Scotland, far from the German bombs falling on battle-scarred London, and even farther from the bloodbath taking place on World War II’s European front. The secluded seaside village of Windyedge, however, and the Royal Air Force base nearby, are close to Nazi-occupied Norway: close enough that a lone Luftwaffe pilot on a clandestine overnight mission can land there and cache an odd-looking apparatus in the town’s pub. When he mistakes brown-skinned, Jamaican-born Louisa as the contact he knows by the code name Calypso, Odysseus clues her in to the whereabouts of his delivery before he flies off the next day. The Enigma, Louisa discovers, is the enemy’s encryption machine. Once she cracks its code, she and her accomplices join forces in an effort to descramble enemy communications, to pinpoint planned airstrikes, and to provide the RAF Squadron 648 bomber crews stationed in Windyedge with as much advance warning as possible.

B-Flight’s leader, 19-year-old Flight Lieutenant James (Jamie) G. Beaufort-Stuart, has long sensed that the cryptic foreign-language transmissions his crews often intercept in the air can be translated into life-saving tactical intelligence—if only he can find the key. Ellen McEwen is the air base’s volunteer driver. Billeted at the same pub as Louisa Adair and Jane Warner, the elderly woman under her care, Ellen is privy to the Enigma’s existence, to Jane’s fluency in the German language, and to the oddly-matched pair’s capacity to make sense of the veiled directives that Jamie’s men collect. Once she confides in him, the teen trio springs into covert action.

The pace set by author Elizabeth Wein is not only quick, it is unrelenting. She alternates between the first-person perspectives of each of her protagonists and, as the plot intensifies, often delivers them in alternating rapid-fire staccato passages no longer than a paragraph or two, all within the same chapter. The technique grants her readers an aerial view of Jamie’s combat actions, of Ellen’s commitment to her ground job as go-between, and of Louisa’s dedication to providing them with the precise information they need to outsmart the enemy at the same time as it drives the plot forward. The war effort that is Wein’s primary conflict, however, extends far beyond Scotland and the skies that surround it. As Sergeant Lind explains to Louisa, Allied victory or defeat may well depend on British acquisition of her Enigma machine. And the Nazis want it back.

The dogfight for its possession is no less intense than the internal conflicts experienced by each member of the protagonists’ “secret society.” Jamie’s privileged position does nothing to protect him from the dangers of combat flying and the responsibilities of leadership; Ellen’s Scottish Traveller background often evokes the same racist attitudes as Louisa’s brown skin; for obvious reasons, Jane Warner’s German heritage cannot become public knowledge. The relationship that they forge together gives each of them strength, but the palpable tension that kept this reviewer turning page after page was the question: will they survive?

Admittedly, I stumbled a little over the ease with which Wein characterizes the British Intelligence officer, Elizabeth Lind. I almost resented the way her introduction late in The Enigma Game took my attention away from its principle players. Once I realized that she graces the pages of other books in the author’s Code Name Verity series, I understood the author’s familiarity, relaxed with her presence, and grew to appreciate the undercurrent that makes me wonder if I will encounter Sergeant Lind—or Jamie, or Ellen, or Louisa—in the future.

Louise Brecht is a Creative Writing student at the University of British Columbia. An avid reader and aspiring author, Louise has published works of non-fiction, fiction and poetry in nineteenquestions, Pearls, Collage, and Sweatink.   

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