Code Name Verity was some of the best WWII fiction I’ve ever read. So I’ve had this prequel on my to-read list for a while. Elizabeth Wein in general seems like an author I should watch, and I finally tackled The Pearl Thief with no small amount of trepidation: how could this possibly measure up to Code Name Verity? Indeed, if that’s your metric, you will necessarily be disappointed. Obviously this book is smaller in scope. Yet there are still so many good stories happening here!
Julia Beaufort-Stuart arrives at her family's ancestral home. It’s been retrofitted into a school following the death of her grandfather, so this will be Julia’s last summer there. The summer festivities are immediately overshadowed by the disappearance and death of a professor who had been cataloguing some of the Stuart artifacts in the house. Suspicions fall on the Traveller encampment whom Julia has befriended. It’s difficult for her to clear the air, however, because at about the same time, Julia herself had been attacked and knocked unconscious near the river! What’s happening, who’s responsible, and can Julia overcome generations of prejudice to make sure innocent people don’t take the blame?
On the surface, The Pearl Thief is a YA mystery with Julia as the detective. She displays the characteristic force of will that made her so formidable in Code Name Verity but applies it this time to unravelling the mystery. Along the way, she experiments with the power her femininity brings her, flirting half-seriously, half-usefully with Frank, the project manager of all this construction. What’s so interesting about this story is how it allows us to glimpse the genesis of the Julia we meet in the other book. She demonstrates her flare for adventure here, and she also questions and explores her sexuality with Ellen.
Going deeper, The Pearl Thief is also about discrimination. Wein is telling a story about the mistreatment of Scottish Travellers. I’m aware of the Travellers because of the time I spent teaching in England, but of course that doesn’t mean I’m very familiar with their history. I appreciate that Wein is careful about how she tells this story. Not being a Traveller herself, she avoids trying to speak for them or have a Traveller as the protagonist. Julia is her avatar, an outsider who messes up and needs to earn the trust of people like Ellen. The result is a book that helps young readers see Travellers in a different light than they are perhaps stereotypically portrayed while not claiming to speak for them or represent their culture.
This is what I meant when I said that you shouldn’t dismiss The Pearl Thief just because it isn’t Code Name Verity and doesn’t involve spies and interrogations and planes. Yes, it’s a more intimate story. Yet it is important for its own reasons. I won’t pretend it captivated me as much or that I will revisit it again and again like I might with Code Name Verity. That’s ok. It’s still a really good read!