REVIEW: Code Name Edelweiss by Stephanie Landsem
“What I am looking for—what I desperately need, Mrs. Weiss—is a spy.”
Adolf Hitler is still a distant rumble on the horizon, but a Jewish spymaster and his courageous spies uncover a storm of Nazi terror in their own backyard.
In the summer of 1933, a man named Adolf Hitler is the new and powerful anti-Semitic chancellor of Germany. But in Los Angeles, no-nonsense secretary Liesl Weiss has concerns much closer to home. The Great Depression is tightening its grip and Liesl is the sole supporter of two children, an opinionated mother, and a troubled brother.
Leon Lewis is a Jewish lawyer who has watched Adolf Hitler’s rise to power—and the increase in anti-Semitism in America—with growing alarm. He believes Nazi agents are working to seize control of Hollywood, the greatest propaganda machine the world has ever known. The trouble is, authorities scoff at his dire warnings.
When Liesl loses her job at MGM, her only choice is to work with Leon Lewis and the mysterious Agent Thirteen to spy on her friends and neighbors in her German American community. What Leon Lewis and his spies find is more chilling—and more dangerous—than any of them suspected.
Code Name Edelweiss is based on a true story, unknown until recent years: How a lone Jewish lawyer and a handful of amateur spies discovered and foiled Adolf Hitler’s plan to take over Hollywood.
NOTE – this book is about the anti-Semitism that was being fanned in the US by Nazi operatives and sympathizers in the decade before World War II. As such, there are anti-Semitic slurs and viewpoints in it but these are included to make the point that these people (the Nazis) had to be stopped.
Dear Ms. Landsem,
Wow, this book was all that I hoped for and more. It’s not only a well crafted undercover spy novel but also uses religion to actually further the change in the two main characters but not in a preachy way. Instead, Liesl and Agent Thirteen have to come face to face with their fears, their doubts, their prejudices, and their questions about how a loving God could allow certain things to happen and then wrestle with their own consciences for answers.
The events in the book slowly build the tension from another ordinary day of Liesl dodging the unwanted advances that women have to do in their workplaces, through the loss of her job and desperate need to find work in the Depression, to an unlikely boss and source of work. When lawyer Leon Lewis tells Liesl why he wants her to pose as a secretary for the Friends of New Germany organization in Los Angeles, she thinks he’s nuts. Sure, things are happening in Germany and being done by fanatics but that couldn’t happen here, right? Some people might not like or associate with Jews but that doesn’t mean they’d do violence, would they? And her family have been loyal Americans since her parents immigrated. Why, her father insisted on signing up during the Great War to prove his patriotism and died. She, her mother and her younger brother had been called anti-German slurs (which kind of reminded me of this book – “Hope at Dawn,”). In the end, what gets her to accept the assignment isn’t any burning desire to for a cause – it’s the promise of $30 a week.
And so she starts working for people who seem to be ordinary, nice, and only trying to support the German-American heritage Liesl loves and is proud of. Yes, Mr. Schwinn eventually gets handsy but most male bosses do and Liesl knows how to duck and dodge. Thekla Schwinn on the other hand is delighted at Liesl’s competence. Liesl isn’t quite as thrilled about some of the other people there but the money she’s earning is helping to pay down the family bills that grew after her husband disappeared and because her brother shrugs off stepping up and being the man of the family.
When the light finally begins to dawn for Liesl, it’s not a bombshell but rather a slow and gradual, though spending a horrified night reading Mein Kampf might have speeded it up a little, realization. Along with this comes the knowledge that her own brother, a cadet policeman, is getting mixed up in it, too. Now Liesl is having to act better than a Hollywood actress to hide her true sympathies from the people at work, her own family, and sadly her neighbors who were formerly her friends. Liesl also faces the cowardly choices she’s made in the past to not stand up for someone when she knows she should have. Brava for this as it gives Liesl depth, forces her to deal with personal responsibility, and illustrates part of the old poem, “but I did not speak out.”
There is another undercover agent working with her but as their boss has decided to keep almost everyone’s identity secret from the others for reasons of safety, neither knows the true feelings of the other. This part is well done with viable reasons to continue for them to misjudge each other. They have both come from places of complacence and need to examine what they are willing to accept and where their line in the sand is. The other agent, already on board against the Nazis, is someone who manages to hold out hope for some of the young teens who have been caught up with this group as they merely look for a place to fit in, for father figures to replace those lost, as was Liesl’s and Fritz’s father, in the war. The agent, as I said earlier, doesn’t get preachy but talks to them, urges them to think about the men their fathers would have wanted them to be. It’s actually Liesl he eventually has to talk into giving Fritz another chance.
I think the real events of Leon Lewis and his spy ring’s efforts to counteract the attempt of Nazis to wreak havoc and to raise awareness of the rise of fascism are well woven into the plot. As I read the book, the similarity to current world divisions and events struck me. The end is a touch open so I’m holding out hope that this won’t be the last we’ll see of Liesl, her family, Agent Thirteen, and Leon Lewis. Oh, and if Chester the Cat hadn’t made it through, I would have rioted. Just so you know … B+