Code Name Hélène

by Ariel Lawhon
Doubleday, March 2020, $27.95

If you can be drunk on a novel, I was drunk on this one. Four hundred and 40 pages of an epic, delicious, incredibly true, unbelievably brave account of the life of Nancy Grace Augusta Wake, a fierce fighter for the French resistance. Nancy, an Australian, left home at age 16 and ended up in France, writing for Hearst, as the world danced closer and closer to World War II. She saw some Nazi brutality up close and early on, and it made her determined to fight them.

As her story begins, Nancy forsakes journalism for love to marry the very wealthy Henri Fiocca. The two settle in the resort town of Marseille, but it’s not long before Henri is called up and Nancy, restless, takes on a small courier job, which leads to much, much more. Before long, she’s escorting refugees out of France to the safety of Spain.

While Code Name Hélène is very much based on a real person—Nancy Wake—it’s a fictionalized account of her life. What does the reader of historical fiction gain over straight history? In the hands of a writer like Ariel Lawhon, quite a lot. Lawhon puts the reader inside the mind of a woman who is by turns brave, bold, loving, practical, strategic, and above all else, a truly fearless leader. The reader comes to understand what it is to be in Nancy’s shoes, in the 1940s. While Nancy doesn’t have to fight for her spot in the Resistance, she does, as a woman, have to fight to assume authority.

I’m not sure a work of historical nonfiction could illustrate so vividly the problems inherent to being a woman in the woods among a group of men who haven’t seen their wives or girlfriends in quite a while. (I’ll leave it to the reader to discover how she does it, but it’s skillfully and believably done.) And I think it takes a certain imagination to convey the feelings of a woman who arrives home to find her front door ajar. “Single women in the world learn this at an early age—more so when they travel alone and live alone and come home alone, every night, for years and years. So I know I locked the door.” And it takes a novelist to provide the twist on the other side of that unlocked door.

And then there’s the lipstick. A shade of red created by Elizabeth Arden that’s Nancy’s trademark armor, or as Nancy puts it, the color that makes men “see the woman, not a warrior”—a weapon that gives her an advantage that gets her out of more than one tricky situation.

When I finished this book, I’d been on an exhilarating journey in the forests of France with Nancy, fighting Nazis, unpacking shipments of weapons dropped by the British, and getting others out of terrible situations. She’s a hero, a warrior, a glamorous woman, a wealthy wife, a trained killer, an expert at codes, and someone who unquestionably risks everything to pursue what she knows is right. If there’s a better reason to read a novel than to read about someone who does the right thing no matter what, I can’t think what it might be.

Robin Agnew
Teri Duerr
March 2020