________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 8. . . .October 26, 2012


Violins of Autumn.

Amy McAuley.
New York, NY: Walker & Company (Distributed in Canada by Penguin Canada), 2012.
326 pp., hardcover, $18.00.
ISBN 978-0-8027-2297-7.

Subject Headings:
World War, 1939-1945-Underground movements-France-Fiction.
France-German occupation, 1940-1945-Fiction.

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

*** /4



We push our bikes along, down a long, winding hill and up the other side. The road curves, and as we’re about to hop on our bicycles, I hear approaching vehicles.

I hurriedly grab our map, cleverly printed on a square of silk, and tie it around my neck like a pretty scarf. Denise’s suitcase radio will fool the eye, but not an inspection.

A convoy of trucks comes toward us from the other side of the bend.

“Keep going,” Denise says. “Act normally. Everything will be fine.”

She can’t quite fool me into thinking she isn’t as frightened as I am.

We walk on, nonchalantly pushing our bicycles. I go over my cover story in my head. I prepare myself for the inevitable handing over of my papers.

The first truck rumbles past. Then another. All the trucks continue down the road. A handful of German soldiers march by on foot. Still no one asks for papers or questions what we’re doing. I raise my face. A boy at the tail end of the group catches me looking and he smiles. He can’t be a day over eighteen.

In passing, he speaks, tossing out a remark the same way a school chum would. I don’t react and I don’t look back. Neither does Denise.

“I wonder what he said,” she whispers.

I put one leg over my bicycle and settle onto the seat. Denise does the same.

My shaking hands grip the handlebars. “Roughly translated, he said, ‘Hiya, babes.’”

Our journey into unfamiliar land, into all its wonders and dangers, has begun.


Betty Sweeney may only be 17-years-old, but she feels she can do something to help out the war effort. So, she lies about her age and is accepted by the Special Operations Executive to begin her training as a spy, code-named Adele. When Violins of Autumn begins, she has just dropped behind enemy lines and has orders to contact the local Resistance fighters and then make her way to Paris in order to serve as a courier. Her teammate, Denise, is a wireless radio operator, and she will transmit messages using Morse code. Within a few weeks of the opening of the novel, Adele completes several successful courier missions as well as being able to spy on a factory and pass along critical information to the local Resistance fighters before being captured by the Nazis.

      Amy McAuley sets her tale in the weeks just before D-Day in June 1944. In fact, the title of the novel refers to the coded message sent into France by the BBC which signalled that D Day was imminent and Allied troops would soon be landing on the shores of France as the first step toward liberation. McAuley has evidently done her research and gives readers a good sense of what life was like both in the French countryside and in occupied Paris. The constant tension, the inability to be certain who is a friend and who is an enemy, even the ersatz coffee, all combine to place readers right beside the main character. Adele’s training as a spy was intense and thorough, and yet readers understand that, at any moment, Adele is just within a heartbeat of making a small mistake and being found out by the Germans.

     Adele and Denise are, in many ways, typical young women who are interested in films, fashions, and boys and yet who both are determined to devote themselves to the cause of freedom for their country. They understand the dangers inherent in what they are doing and realize that they may be tortured and perhaps even killed for what they believe in. In this way, McAuley gives her readers main characters who value a goal and are willing to do whatever it takes in order to help achieve it. Both women grow in self-knowledge and determination within the pages of the novel.

     The action is fast-paced, and more than once readers will be on the edge of their seats as Adele narrowly evades capture. Her nervous enthusiasm is infectious as she bicycles behind enemy lines, meets other agents in parks to hand over information, uses code words and passwords and does whatever is possible to thwart the Germans, including helping the local Resistance fighters to blow up roads and bridges. She knows that D-Day can’t be far away and the excitement she feels is palpable.

     While this is an excellent and well-researched piece of young adult fiction, there are times when it just seems a little too easy for Adele to reach her goals. McAuley softens some of the rougher edges of the torture, for instance, and seems to have no hesitation in providing a ‘happy ever after’ ending which is something of a letdown after the more exciting action of the book. Adele also finds herself involved in a love triangle with a local Resistance fighter as well as a young American airman, and rather than add depth to the book, this seems to merely meet the ‘romance requirement’. Here, too, the problem of the love triangle is solved rather easily and in a predictable fashion.

     These, however, are issues which do not detract from the novel in a major way. Violins of Autumn would be an excellent introduction to the role of women in World War II, especially if students used the novel as a springboard to do more research about the topic. As well, the novel shows just what one individual is able to accomplish against what seem to be insurmountable odds. Of course, Adele and her fellow characters did not win the war single-handedly by any means, but they show readers that even seemingly small contributions are valuable, especially in the effort to build a peaceful world in which everyone has the freedom to live and love as they wish.


Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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