Code Name Edelweiss shines a spotlight on American anti-semitism in the years prior to WWII and brings attention to some little-known history in the fight against fascism in America.
Summer 1933: Liesl Weiss is the second generation of her family employed by MGM. The huge movie lots and sound stages of the massive studio have always been less a place of wonder to her than a symbol of security until an executive decides to do more than just give her random pats and pinches and tries to steal a kiss. She treats him like she would any thief, with the end result of a pink slip landing on her desk. The sole support of her mother, her two children, and her brother, Liesl is desperate for work, but in spite of her stellar reputation and the fact that she was the top student at her secretarial school, there is no job to be found. While in yet another employment office, begging for any position no matter how menial, Leisl’s eyes chance upon a work order looking for a secretary with a strong knowledge of the German language. She is the daughter of immigrants who taught her to be fluent in the language of their homeland. When the recruiter steps away from her desk, Liesl snatches the paper and heads over to the offices of Leon Lewis, Attorney at Law.
Leon has watched Adolf Hitler’s rise to power with concern, has been seemingly one of the few who has listened to what the man says, and reads the propaganda the Nazis so eagerly churn out. He has also been paying close attention to the rising tide of anti-semitism in America; he’s heard the speeches of organized groups like the KKK and the angry whispers of the unemployed men on the streets who feel Jewish business owners aren’t giving them a fair break. Yet all the conversations he has had with the powerful people in public office or major businesses have left him frustrated. None of them see fascism and racism as threats to national security the way he does. Determined not to let this problem go unattended until it is too late to do anything about it, he begins to form his own spy network. And while Liesl might not be the perfect secretary for his law practice, she will be the perfect person to infiltrate The Friends of New Germany. A charity/social club in the heart of Los Angeles’, they, along with the Aryan Bookstore, are the hub for spreading support for Hitler and the National Socialist brand of fascism in the U.S.
Liesl is originally very skeptical about Leon’s proposition because she doubts there are genuine Nazi operatives in her own neighborhood. However, she desperately needs the salary he can provide. She accepts his offer, volunteers her secretarial services to Friends, and is shocked to discover that Leon is right.
Thirteen, a former Pinkerton agent, has infiltrated radical groups before. As a veteran of the Great War, he appreciates the chance Leon has given him to work on the front lines of what is happening and hopes that maybe this time, America can enter the battle ahead more prepared. Or perhaps avoid entering at all. The latter seems unlikely, however, given what he is discovering about The Friends of New Germany. Both he and Leon are concerned at how easy it has been for the Nazis to get a foothold in the U.S., especially since Thirteen regularly meets SS officers and other German officials who are sponsoring/aiding the group.
When Thirteen encounters the beautiful new secretary of the club, he is saddened that such a lovely woman supports such ugly ideals. But as he gets to know her, he begins to wonder if maybe there is more to her than he first suspected.
This book is one of the most richly detailed historical novels I have read. Leon Lewis and his operatives were real and although this is a fictional account, the author has based her story on things they actually did and events that actually happened. The financial concerns of the times are expertly explored, and the very real fears and responses that people living on the edge faced are beautifully depicted.
The characters are also authentic. Liesl, whose husband vanished into thin air one night, struggles with insecurity. Her father had died during the Great War, which left her, her mother and her brother homeless for a period. This history has left her with a very narrow world, her only concerns being whether or not she’s a good mother and making her desperate to keep a roof over her family’s head. Her first experiences with anti-semitism come from authority figures – her daughter’s elementary school teacher complains about the girl’s behaviors and essentially demands that Liesl attends a parenting group in which Liesl hears disparaging comments about Jews. A guest and already intimidated by the teacher’s complaints, Liesl stays silent. When she sees a beloved Jewish neighbor belittled and bullied at the local grocers, she stays silent then too, all too aware of her own store account – which is overdue – and the fact that she needs to stay on the owner’s good side to take home any food that day. It isn’t until she is working for Lewis that she realizes her silence allows bigotry to flourish. Once enlightened, she risks her life to get the lawyer the information he needs and begins to perform other quiet acts of resistance. I loved the character growth we see and also the look at how society was at a turning point in this moment. Most people didn’t understand tribalism or anti-semitism, and it was only through courageous souls working tirelessly to patiently teach them that the national attitude made a slow change.
As a white man, Thirteen also hadn’t been aware of the dark underbelly of racism in the country and just what that meant for the people suffering from it. His admiration for Lewis has him learning about the effects and dangers of anti-semitism and being willing to put his life on the line to challenge it.
The author also does a nice job of capturing how propaganda works on the weak and willing. Liesl’s brother, young and impressionable, is proud to join the police force and doesn’t recognize initially that a strong thread of racism underlies much of what his boss does. He comes to a slow awareness of how wrong that is and why through Liesl.
My only quibble with the book is with some of the language used, such as the term “Indian” to describe an actor dressed to portray a character in a Cowboy/Western film, Thirteen describing the food at a Chinese grocer’s as unappealing (he later tastes it and loves it), and the endless use of the word dirty to describe Jews by the villains. All of this would have been accurate for the time but is jarring for a twenty-first-century reader.
Code Name Edelweiss takes a new look at WWII and highlights problems the U.S. had then which we still struggle with today. I recommend it to readers who like the history of this time period.
Recent Comments …
Second the Men of Midnight series by LMR. Dangerous Lover (Dangerous #1) is my favorite LMR read though.
Rolling Stone had an article about the KKK romance controversy — including a discussion of dark romance. I liked it…
Happy upcoming anniversary! I agree about the wedding stuff! I did have 5 months to plan mine, but it was…
So glad you enjoyed this and that the author does a good job of wrapping up this series! Can’t wait…
You only cite one newspaper among your favorites above (The Washington Post). I know you read the New York Times…
Good, I hope you both like it!!