Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes — A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikey Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies is a significant contribution to women’s history and to the history of code-breaking. Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980) carved out an amazing career for herself. She was raised in a small town in the Midwest. She only went to college because she insisted upon it. Ironically, Swarthmore rejected here. Upon graduation from a relatively obscure college, Friedman insisted upon looking for a job befitting her talents and interests. She had studied poetry and philosophy in college, so non-teaching jobs did not readily present themselves. Undeterred, Friedman kept looking. Code breaking wasn’t exactly on her radar screen, but through luck and perseverance she started working for a rich eccentric with an interest in code breaking as it related to Shakespeare. Ultimately she broke from the eccentric’s private colony and moved on to crack bootlegging codes and then to breaking Nazi codes during the Second World War. Very few people came close to being able to do what she and her similarly talented husband William Friedman were able to do, but their story — particularly her story is little known. Happily J Edgar Hoover and his FBI come out looking vainglorious and feeble, as the the Coast Guard and Elizebeth Friedman shine.
The book is well written and extensively researched and provides a fascinating story about a woman most people have never encountered and whose tracks were pretty well covered by confidentiality agreements and the likes of J Edgar Hoover. Friedman herself contributed to her undervalued obscurity by generally avoiding attention and insisting that her husband was more worthy of notice. Coming on the recent movie about Alan Turing, this is yet another important contribution to understanding how World War II espionage worked, on both sides. This important biography also shines some light on what it was like to live and work in Washington during and the 1930’s and the war period.
Every time I run across a biography of a highly consequential women who worked in obscurity, I wonder how many more are out there. Thank you, Mr. Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman the attention she deserves.
Elizabeth Berg’s The Story of Arthur Truluv shows the benefits of unexpected friendships and connections. Arthur Moses is a good man who steadfastly grieves the passing of his wife. Arthur’s willingness to reach out to others in a sensitive way and to be open to others who reach out to him makes him one of the most lovable characters I’ve encountered in recent fiction. Arthur isn’t a saint or conventionally heroic, but he is astute and compassionate. He is, however exactly the right friend, for the bullied and forlorn 18 year old Maddy Harris. Together they do good things.
The Story of Arthur Truluv reminded me a little of the charms of A Man Called Ove, but with fewer rough edges. I can’t imagine anything better than to age like Arthur does — to befriend the friendless and help them find some happiness and peace. It is tough to be as good as Arthur is without being smug or without being cloying, but Elizabeth Berg has deftly sketched a wonderful character and reminded me that I need to read more of her books.
You really need to get this book, for the children you know and for yourself. You will learn something, and you will be inspired!
Biographies are my favorite kind of history — always more fun and memorable than lists of battles and elections. As a child, I read probably hundreds of biographies published in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. Those highly entertaining books gave me my first understanding of American history from all sorts of perspectives. I particularly focused on the books about women who were famous for what they themselves had done, as opposed to those whose fame derived from their husbands, inspired me to think about what was possible. Their stories were really important to me.
Vashti Harrison’s wonderful Little Leaders — Bold Women in Black History is similarly important and inspiring. Little Leaders is written for children, but everyone should read it. Really. I guarantee you will learn something and you will be impressed. I wish this book had been around when my daughters were young because it is designed to spawn countless conversations about the struggles these women faced, the difficulties they surmounted, the sources of their inspirations and then their amazing contributions. Harrison offers up capsule biographies and appealing illustrations of 40 remarkable black women. The title Little Leaders, together with the simple illustrations of these women as girls, make the point that all the featured women started out as girls, and that their childhood interests often led directly to their later achievements. These stories also provide lots of good background information about what life what like for these women and others of their time. The happy result is that the reader ends up knowing a lot more than just what happened to a particular individual. This is such a good way to inform children about their history and to provide context for their own times and their own opportunities and responsibilities.
Harrison includes famous women, as well as women who may not be so famous but clearly deserve to be. It is no criticism of the book that I kept thinking of other black women who might have been included. In fact the books just made me think of a whole host of people that deserve to be better known and celebrated.
This little book is an odd conglomeration of material surrounding the life of the late Beate Sirota Gordon. Beate was the daughter of Leo Sirota, the Jewish Russian/Ukrainian emigre pianist who ended up in Japan from the 192o’s through the end of World War II. The material about how he and his wife Augustine ended up in Japan and why they elected to stay in Japan through World War II provides an anecdotal glimpse into how people coped with an unstable Europe and Japan’s global ambitions. Beate herself spent a great deal of her childhood in Japan, where she became the family’s principal Japanese interpreter. She then travelled to the United States for her education as a teenager and attended Mills College. She also began monitoring Japanese radio broadcasts and doing other Japanese language related work during the war.
What happened after the war is truly remarkable. Beate returned to Japan and managed to locate her parents, who had lost their home and been interned during the war. Then, in her early twenties, Beate proceeded to help write the new Japanese constitution. Specifically she drafted in large part the Japanese constitution’s equal rights for women clause, which provided Japanese women with more specific rights than anything the United States has produced. Remember, we couldn’t even pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States. Beate’s own observations from spending her childhood in Japan, combined with a thoughtful, research-oriented approach served her well. She consulted constitutions from countries all over the world before settling on an approach for Japan. This book is far too brief to consider what it meant for Westerners to impose a constitution upon Japan, but clearly post-World War II was an unique era in many ways.
Beate Sirot Gordon spent the remainder of her life based in New York, where she served as the director of performing arts first at the Japan Society and then at the Asia Society. focused on bringing the culture of the Far East to the United States. As just one example, through her efforts the iconic dancers Eiko and Koma were introduced to the United States.
I highly recommend this somewhat disjointed, but highly interesting book. Also, please note that Ms. Gordon wrote her own book, The Only Woman in the Room, which I imagine is well worth reading.