In an effort to work a little more nonfiction into my reading this year, I picked up the audio book to Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II when my store was sent a box of complimentary items that included both the audio and regular hardcover versions of this book. Thank you, Hachette!
The title is pretty self explanatory -- this book is an overview of women’s involvement as cryptographers and cryptanalysts during the war, and the author does a creditable job of bringing these women’s stories to light. More than 10,000 young women worked as code breakers during the war, but because they took secrecy oaths under penalty of death and also because most of the women were forced out of work once the war was over, their stories are not part of our shared lore and history of that war. Until now, that is.
Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government started sending letters to young women attending various colleges in November 1941, inviting them to secret meetings where they were judged on various aptitudes for numbers, patterns, and languages, as well as their character. Those deemed worthy enough then pursued further training before being invited to Washington, DC, after graduation.
This book ranges from the thrilling to the mundane, talking about the desperation for breaking both the Enigma machine on the European front and the various Japanese codes on the Pacific front, but also ranging into the daily lives of these women -- the hardships they faced, but also the simple joys of having escaped the dreary confines of the proper lives they had, up until recently, been expected to assume.
One thing I enjoyed was hearing more about the involvement of Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges for the war effort (since they’re both local to me) both in terms of the number of their young women who joined the ranks of codebreakers and the training grounds that they became for female officers, once the Army and Navy decided to admit women.
While the author did a terrific job describing the raging sexism and misogyny that these women were facing, I would have appreciated hearing a bit more about the rampant racism of the age since the reader only gets to know white women and their contribution to the war effort. It remains mostly unspoken that it was only white women who were college educated at the time, and of good enough pedigree for the US government.
Erin Bennett was the reader for this book and while I don’t recall anything that stood out about her performance, she was a solid reader. Mundy’s research seems solid, based on the footnotes in the physical book, but I do wish that the narrative had been a bit more streamlined. There were multiple times when the narrative diverted to epistolary excerpts between one of the women codebreakers and the young man who was in love with her -- they didn’t advance the storyline and they weren’t interesting enough, either from a romantic or a historical point of view, to include them. Overall, however, this is a book I could easily recommend to the general reader, but particularly to readers of historical nonfiction and those interested in knowing more about the stories of those people who have traditionally been marginalized.