Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes

I’m not entirely sure how I first knew about The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone, but it’s been on a list of “books to read” on my phone for a few years. I know I received my copy after putting it on a Christmas wish list one year and was pleased to open the book from a festive package that holiday season.

I completed reading and reviewing The Bluest Eye earlier this month and wanted a swift return to my genre comfort zone of historical nonfiction/biographies. In perusing my stacks of not-yet-read books I was excited to find this one.

This hefty (in a good way) book provides an in-depth look at the career of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a civilian patriot who over the course of 30 years lent her specific and unique skills of codebreaking to defend against American enemies. I say hefty because the book was dense in terms of both historical details and cryptography context. At times I felt as though I was reading an entry level textbook for a course on how to solve ciphers; at others, a spy novel.

Soon after completing her education in Greek and English literature from Hillsdale College in 1916, Elizebeth was a bit unceremoniously swept up by an eccentric millionaire, George Fabyan, to work on identifying Shakespearean ciphers at his community estate, Riverbank, in Geneva, Illinois, just about a year before America entered World War I. If that set of details isn’t quite interesting enough, the majority of the book focuses on her relationship with her husband, William Friedman, whom she met at Riverbank and with whom she developed her ability to analyze cryptograms. The Friedmans spent much of their careers working to develop the science of cryptography before being assigned to separate, yet equally top secret government projects. William was part of the American team that solved the German Enigma machine around the same time the British at Bletchley Park found the key (an accomplishment made widely famous by Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game). Elizebeth spent years cracking the codes of rum runners and gangsters before turning her attention to defeating the Nazi spy network in South America.

In the present age of occasionally aggressive pushes for women empowerment, the tales told in The Woman Who Smashed Codes sounded extremely archaic, so it was important to recognize and appreciate the vast improvements to work culture, pay parity, social opportunities and patriarchal expectations that have occurred in the past 75 years as I read the book. At the time, Elizebeth Friedman’s expertise in her field was so valuable that the government (full of men) had no choice but to continue to keep her on its payroll in order to make critical advancements in securing a safer future for the country even though she was given ridiculously low pay in comparison, few opportunities of promotion and was repeatedly undervalued by many of the men for whom she worked.

Change to large-scale agencies and organizations is often painfully slow, so it was no surprise to me that Elizebeth quit working multiple times to pursue what she felt was expected of a woman – homemaking and child-rearing. However, even in the matters of the home I was encouraged by the ways that the Friedmans treated each other as equals. Breaking many social norms of the time, Elizebeth found joy and fulfillment both through her career and for caring for her family. From what the author Jason Fagone describes, Elizebeth never felt restricted or oppressed by the ambition or success of her husband, but was rather encouraged by him to pursue her own. I doubt that she ever doubted her abilities or contributions and was probably diminished only by the limitations of what was offered by society at the time.

Fagone was obviously intentional in bragging on behalf of an extraordinary woman who was so much more notable for how little she thought to tell of her work. Even as an old woman, reflecting back on a career that provided the foundations for modern intelligence agencies, Elizebeth apparently made light of how she and William pioneered the science of breaking codes, calling herself a “has-been” and presuming that the audience would feel cheated by listening to stories of famous code-breaking cases she led.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Woman Who Smashed Codes. It was written in a way that kept me engaged and interested in the stories, but had enough meat to its content that I didn’t want to just burn through the pages. Fagone is a great storyteller and seemed bent on telling Elizebeth’s story to honor her name, her work and the legacy she left on American intelligence and for women in the workplace. It was an admirable cause to celebrate an admirable woman!

This book may be for you if you also like: Elizebeth Friedman; women empowerment; stories from World War II; cryptology; codebreaking; biographies; Geneva, Illinois; history of the National Security Agency (NSA) or Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI); J. Edgar Hoover; enigmas (the machines or the puzzles); Bletchley Park; Alan Turing; The Imitation Game (film, 2014); intelligence agencies; spy thrillers; nonfiction; National Treasure (film, 2004); Allied victories; long-lasting love stories; good writing.


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