Sunday, December 31, 2017

"The Brass Compass" by Ellen Butler

I got to hear Ellen Butler speak at my local library a couple of months ago on the topic of women in the OSS.  That's the Office of Strategic Services, if you don't know, the American intelligence service they created in the early days of WWII, which has since become the CIA.  I watched the Alan Ladd movie O.S.S. (1946) earlier this year and was curious as to how accurate that representation might have been, and I'm always interested by anything to do with WWII anyway.

Butler was knowledgeable and engaging, and I very much enjoyed her presentation.  I even raised my hand to ask if she'd seen Alan Ladd's movie and if it seemed accurate in light of her own research.  (She said she thought it was accurate overall, so yay.)  Butler has even managed to meet and interview some surviving female OSS agents, and her own grandfather served as a cryptographer during WWII.  I found her fascinating.

As for The Brass Compass, it was overall most enjoyable as well.  It follows Lily, a young American who speaks French and German flawlessly.  She joins the OSS because she's bored and purposeless and is soon behind enemy lines, posing as a nanny so she can spy on a high-ranking Nazi officer.  But her cover is eventually exposed, forcing her to flee across Germany in the dead of winter.  She's eventually reunited with the man she loves, an American airman, and goes on to have more spying adventures with and without him.  It's kind of an episodic story, with Lily having various spying escapades, and with the love story threading through all of it.  

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  a soft R for violence and torture, mentions of rape, description of a Nazi death camp, bad language sprinkled throughout (including an f-bomb dropped by a soldier confronted with said death camp), and some non-explicit love scenes.  Really, it's the torture that pushes my rating up from a PG-13.


  1. Sounds interesting! Are there any other WWII books you'd recommend? I'm trying to return to reading more historical and/or non-fiction books. I just finished a biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer a while back and found it really intriguing.

    1. It really was quite entertaining. And you don't get to read about female spies in the '40s that often, much less a book from their perspective.

      My two favorite WWII nonfiction books are The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan and Citizen Soldiers by Stephen E. Ambrose.

      For fiction books, I adore The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (reviewed here), A Distant Melody by Sarah Sundin (reviewed here), and Where Treetops Glisten by Tricia Goyer, Cara Putman, and Sarah Sundin (reviewed here). I also love Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.

  2. Okay, so I'm probably going to hold off on reading this. :P Because of the language and the torture - I'm pretty okay with reading about/watching violence, but if there's torture...nope. :P

    1. Eva, I think the torture would not bother you (as torture goes, it's not psychotically awful, and mostly you see the aftereffects -- I'd really prolly put it on par with "The Long Way Home"), but the language definitely would. So sorry I didn't manage to finish reading it before Christmas!

    2. Ah, I see.

      Well, I could always ask Mom if she'd read it and Mark out the language for me.

    3. Yeah, that would work too.

      However, do please know that it was a gift -- it's now yours to do with as you wish. Read it, keep it to read when you're older, donated it to the library, sell it -- that's up to you! I will not be upset one way or the other :-)

    4. Yep, I know! I think it's really cool that it's autographed by the author, so if probably keep it just for that.


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