The World War II era remains one of the most popular settings for historical fiction. The facts of the conflict are familiar, allowing readers to sink into the story without much scene-setting or exposition, and there were plenty of heroic deeds committed by ordinary people fighting the Nazi scourge.
Nancy Wake, the main character in Ariel Lawhon’s latest novel “Code Name Helene,” was hardly an ordinary person. Rather, she’s one of the most fascinating World War II heroes who isn’t a household name.
As the book opens, Nancy is aboard a Liberator aircraft, preparing to parachute into occupied France with her partner, a man known as Hubert. It’s a good introduction to Nancy — we see her bravery, her charisma and her determination. But how did she find herself aboard this Allied warplane, descending into the dangerous unknown?
She started her career as a journalist in the 1930s, covering European culture and politics for a variety of publications. In the late 1930s, she witnessed a Nazi rally in Berlin, as well as Nazi atrocities in Vienna, experiences that shaped her worldview.
Shocked by the brainwashing and the cruelty she sees, her path becomes clear — she must use her intelligence and her resourcefulness as part of the resistance.
Lawhon starts her story near the end of the war, in 1944, with alternating chapters reaching back into Nancy’s past, starting in the 1930s. This creates a unique tension in the story, allowing Lawhon to slowly reveal how this everyday woman became one of the Gestapo’s most wanted, with a 5 million franc bounty on her head.
As the timelines merge, a full portrait is revealed, featuring numerous scenes of extraordinary bravery in the face of terror.
We see Nancy Wake cycling several hundred kilometers round-trip as part of an operation, because a woman on a bicycle would be seen by the Nazis as ordinary and unthreatening.
We see Nancy Wake take control of a regiment of French resistance fighters, using her gift for strategic thinking to wreak havoc on the occupying forces as well as their Vichy collaborators.
But Lawhon also shows her as an everyday person, enjoying the company of her dogs and falling in love with her husband, Henri Fiocca.
The structure of the book also allows for multiple exciting scenes of both personal and political drama.
After the initial drop from the Liberator at the beginning of the book, Nancy is immediately thrust into uncertainty: Her partner is nowhere to be seen, and she’s greeted by a man who isn’t her contact. Then the story cuts back to 1936, with Nancy living a life of leisure in Marseille with her friend Stephanie.
The back-and-forth reminds the reader how extraordinary her actions were. She could have lived through the war in relative comfort. She chose a different path.