Jason Fagone’s new nonfiction nail-biter about the life and work of codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman takes readers on a tour of a world once written in code.
In “The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” Fagone shows how Elizebeth, a sharp college graduate itching to leave rural Indiana, ends up trailblazing the very new industry of codebreaking.
Fagone’s biography of Elizebeth reveals a woman in the right place at the right time, unknowingly becoming not only the first woman but one of the first people to practice cryptanalysis, the art of smashing codes. She is curious, thoughtful and daring, like in this passage from her diary:
“I am never quite so gleeful as when I am doing something labeled as an ‘ought not.’ Why should something with a risk in it give me an exuberant feeling inside me? I don’t know what it is unless it is that characteristic which makes so many people remark that I should’ve been born a man.”
Had she been born a man, she may have received more recognition for her incredible accomplishments. That fact alone spurred Fagone to focus his colorful, engaging biography on Elizebeth.
Elizebeth’s cryptanalyst work helps expose a Nazi spy ring in South America, catch smugglers during Prohibition and crack multiple versions of the Enigma, the German encrypting machine sending messages from the Reich.
It’s all very exciting, and Fagone writes with true enthusiasm for his characters. Though the book has 341 pages, it rarely drags, because Fagone has a talent for making history come alive.
The story of Elizebeth would not be complete without the tandem story of her husband and fellow codebreaker William. Some of Fagone’s best writing focuses on the couple’s love as a metaphor for codebreaking.
“When you fall in love,” he writes, “you develop a compact encoding to share mental states more efficiently, cut noise, and bring your beloved closer. All lovers, in this light, are codebreakers.”
Together, Elizebeth and William navigate the troubled waters of two world wars, two children and countless government secrets.
Fagone’s journalistic roots come through as he presents the hard evidence of Elizabeth’s success as a cryptanalyst. “During the Second World War, an American woman figured out how to sweep the globe of undercover Nazis,” he writes. “The proof was on paper: four thousand typed decryptions of clandestine Nazi messages that her team shared with the global intelligence community. She had conquered at least forty-eight different clandestine radio circuits and three Enigma machines to get these plaintexts.”
Some of my favorite moments in the book come when Fagone delves into the coded messages Elizebeth must crack.
In the early 1940s, Elizebeth made the amusing discovery that several Nazi agents were using a copy of the romantic novel “All This and Heaven Too” to encrypt messages.
Fagone’s explanations of how Elizebeth breaks this and other codes give readers some of the tools they need to be amateur codebreakers. In that way, the whole book feels like a puzzle you can excitedly and lovingly solve.
Reviewer Sarah Paez is an intern at WPSU.