The Rose Code by Kate Quinn is set in England against the backdrop of World War II. Much of the story takes place at or near Bletchley Park, the site of the Government Code and Cypher School where personnel worked day and night to decode secret coded transmissions from the Axis powers. At this site, they created automatic machinery to help with decryption including Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer. Although this operation ceased in 1946, all the information was classified until the mid-1970’s. At the peak of this war effort, there were 10,000 people working at Bletchley and three-fourths of them were women. Quinn has created three women whom she places as part of the work force at Bletchley.
The three women, Osla, Mab and Beth are from very different backgrounds, but each brings a set of important skills. Osla is a debutante who had been presented at court. Mab is from lower middle class background trying to help take care of her family. These two recruits are billeted at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Finch and their daughter, Beth. Osla and Mab become increasingly intolerant of Mrs. Finch’s treatment of her daughter who is expected to nearly be her mother’s slave. When Beth disappoints or angers her mother, she is punished by having to hold a heavy Bible at arm’s length for at least thirty minutes. Osla and Mab convince Beth to try for a job with them, and much to her surprise she is hired.
Sometime after the war effort ended, Osla and Mab receive ciphered messages from Beth that said among other things, “Get me out of here … You owe me.” The women know that she is in an insane asylum, but haven’t made any particular effort to check on her. Reluctantly, Osla and Mab agree to meet to decide what, if anything, they should do. Are they responsible in any way for what happened to Beth, and is there anything they could actually do?
I am intrigued by this fictional account of the war efforts at Bletchley Park as well as others I have read or watched. Each person who worked there had to sign an agreement never to talk about the work that went on. That must have been difficult in any case, but particularly for married couples. There is one scene at a dance where a fellow worker named Harry asks Beth to dance. What appears to others as romantic is really an opportunity for them to share what they are working on without being noticed. Amazingly, people kept their silence about their activities for nearly thirty years.
And it is wonderful story about the three women, who they are and the paths they have chosen (or perhaps they were chosen by circumstances). Osla’s romantic involvement with Prince Phillip is an interesting story in itself which ends when Phillip marries Princess Elizabeth.
The Rose Code is published in paperback by William Morrow and retails for $17.99.