Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Jason Fagone's "The Woman Who Smashed Codes"

Jason Fagone's books include Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, the X Prize, and the Race to Revive America and Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies, and reported the following:
Opening the book to page 99, this paragraph jumps out at me:
A tiny slip of paper fluttered down to Elizebeth. She was outdoors at Riverbank with William and Mr. Powell, the gentle University of Chicago publicity agent, the three of them working in the grass, the fresh air. She picked up the paper and saw a line of cursive written in light pencil. It was from William. “My dearest, I sit here studying your features. You are perfectly beautiful!! B.B.” Billy Boy. She hid the note so Mr. Powell wouldn’t see it, later pressing it between two pages of her diary. “My heart sang,” she wrote there, “carolling bursts of ecstasy.”
Elizebeth is Elizebeth Smith, the heroine of the book, and William is William Friedman, her coworker at a strange and wondrous scientific laboratory outside of Chicago. At this point in the story, the autumn of 1916, they're only in their twenties, and they're just beginning to fall in love. She's a Quaker poetry scholar, he's a Jewish plant biologist. They're from completely different worlds. But they just click. They're young and they're bright and they're ambitious and they want to leave a mark on the world. And that's what happens next, in their lives and in the book. They teach themselves how to become codebreakers -- to solve secret messages without knowing the key. Over the next 30 years, they use their abilities to shape the American intelligence community and help win the world wars.

For me, this is one of the cool things about learning about American history through the eyes of Elizebeth and William. You realize that, beneath the familiar narratives of the world wars and the growth of American intelligence, there's also this love story.
Visit Jason Fagone's website.

--Marshal Zeringue