Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Rating: WORTHY!

For a book offering a sort of biography of a woman who was both an outstanding and unassuming code-breaker, Elizebeth Smith, and who was such an important part of solving codes both in wartime and peace time policing operations (such as breaking rum runner's codes for example), I was a little disappointed that the story seemed to defer regularly to the men in her life, as represented by her husband and another man named Fabyan who was a patriarchal and hyper-controlling figure, but who nevertheless saw her potential and first invited her into his group before she ever met her husband-to-be.

Naturally you can't tell her story without including those people, but it seems that in trying to be so many things, the book failed at being the thing it claimed to be: a story of a woman who smashed codes. In view of this, I often found myself wondering, as I read it, if the author had initially written it about the married couple as a team, which they very much were, both professionally and personally, but later tried to change this by purveying it as a story about this one woman. I don't know if he did or not, but looking at it that way seemed to be the only way to make sense of the way it was written. The only other explanation is that he simply didn't get it. If that's the case, at least he can take comfort in the knowledge that our misogynistic jackass of a president would be proud of him.

There are bits in this book which seem irrelevant or hypocritical. The book often goes off at tangents and rambles on as much about those many other things as it does about its 'star'. It's supposed to be championing Elizebeth Smith, as judged by the title, but when this little code-breaking lab run by Fabyan brought in army officers to teach them about these techniques, it mentioned that four of the officers wives also took the course and did well in it. It also highlighted that even while praising them, this guy Fabyan made no mention of them by name, only as the wives of the officers, yet the book commits the very same sin by not telling us who these women were! This was another thing which made me wonder if the subject of the book originally had not been Elizebeth, but 'Mr and Mrs Friedman'.

That said it does tell a strong story about her and I learned a lot from it, so on that basis I am willing to rate this as a worthy read. You can always skips the bits that don't concern her, but I recommend getting this book from the library as I did or buying it used.