Heads up, Shmoopsters: Most of this narrative doesn't occur in linear time. So fasten your seatbelts, and get ready to bounce back and forth between the present and the past.
In the first chapter, or the first dated entry in the narrator's confession, we learn that the narrator is a British spy who has been captured by the Nazis in occupied France. (It's called "occupied France" because the Nazis are occupying it, quite against everyone else's will.)
We know from the narrator's heading, "Ormaie 8.XI.43 JB-S," that she's in the French city of Ormaie and she's writing on November (XI), 8 (8), 1943 (43). We'll leave the letters alone for now because, well, we don't yet know what they stand for.
The first thing the narrator does is confess that she is a coward and has given up eleven sets of wireless code in exchange for getting her clothes back from the Nazi officer who has been interrogating her. She's writing this confession because it's clearly the easiest way out, and she's supposed to be giving her captors information pertinent to the British War Effort.
(Quick historical note: undercover radio operators worked throughout Nazi-occupied Europe to get information to the Allies, who were based in Great Britain, which still hadn't been occupied by the Nazis. They had to take on false identities and be really good with language and code.)
Her interrogator's name is SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden, and she quickly compares him to Captain Hook.
Von Linden has a secretary/assistant named Fräulein Engel, who the narrator says can translate her English account into German.
The narrator is terrified of how the Nazis will execute her when they're done with her: she suspects kerosene and a match.
She's supposed to be giving up airfield locations and types of aircraft in use, but she says she really doesn't know any of this stuff.
The thought of aircraft leads the narrator to her friend, Maddie, whose identity papers she has instead of her own.
She says that she and Maddie flew to France together.
The narrator titles the next section of her confession "Aircraft Types."
We find out about aircraft in a roundabout way as the narrator begins to write about Maddie Brodatt, her friend from Stockport, who flew her to France and once took her riding in the Pennines on her motorbike.
The narrator relates another story (stories within stories—keep them straight) about how in June 1938, before the war began, Maddie took another friend on that same ride.
Now we're with Maddie in 1938.
While Maddie and her friend Beryl are eating their picnic lunch (back in 1938), they see a Puss Moth crash.
The narrator breaks out of the story about Maddie and Beryl to say that she broke the pencil point laughing at one of her own jokes. We'll say this for the narrator: she hasn't lost her sense of humor.
And then Fräulein Engel sharpens the pencil, flicking the shavings into the narrator's eyes while SS-Scharführer Thibaut, another Gestapo underling, holds her head still.
When they go to help the pilot—we're back in 1938—Maddie and Beryl discover that the pilot is a girl.
This inspires Maddie to think she can make the leap from driving a motorbike to flying an airplane.
The narrator names another type of aircraft: the Lysander, which is what Maddie was flying when she dropped the narrator in France several weeks ago.
We learn that Maddie was supposed to land the Lysander, but couldn't because it was struck by antiaircraft fire on the way into France.
Maddie insisted the narrator parachute out before she tried to land the flaming aircraft.
The narrator's captors have shown her pictures of Maddie's crash, so she knows Maddie is dead.
The narrator titles the next section "Some British Support for Anti-Semitism."
This section continues the story of how Maddie came to be piloting a Lysander in France at all.
During the week after the Puss Moth crash (still in 1938), Maddie uses newspaper clippings to figure out how a girl came to be piloting an airplane.
The Friday following the Saturday of the crash, Maddie discovers that the pilot is Dympna Wythenshawe, an aristocrat who has been giving joyrides in her other airplane all week.
Maddie also reads a story about a gathering to support a British fascist leader named Oswald Mosley, but thinks nothing of it.
The next day (Saturday, a week after the Puss Moth crash) Maddie sets off for Catton Park Aerodrome.
She gets stuck in the crowd around Mosley in Stockport, and gets in a fight with a bunch of British Nazi wannabes who knock her down, insult her granddad's bike shop, and make some choice remarks about his Jewish customers.
A group of much nicer people helps Maddie up, and she heads out of Stockport.
The narrator editorializes about how dumb fascists are throughout this section, and Fräulein Engel asks her to take it out because von Linden will not be pleased.
The narrator observes that Engel and Thibaut are both also scared of von Linden.
The narrator titles the next section "Location of British Airfields."
This is the continuing story of "Maddie and the Puss Moth in 1938."
That Saturday afternoon, Maddie finally makes it to the Catton Park Aerodrome, which is shared space for the Royal Air Force (RAF) and civilian pilots.
Maddie watches the planes circling for a while and then runs into a woman who turns out to be Dympna Wythenshawe.
The narrator pauses to say that Dympna is a bit like her: raised in a castle, educated at a Swiss boarding school, speaks with a privileged accent. So now we know a teensy bit more about the narrator.
Dympna offers to give Maddie a ride as soon as her Puss Moth is fixed, and then she shows Maddie where the mechanics are working on it.
Maddie joins in and helps put the engine back together.
As they have tea later, Dympna offers to pick Maddie up for the official opening of Oakway Airfield next Saturday, and to let her and Beryl watch the festivities from the pilot's stand.
The narrator says she's had nothing to eat or drink since the day before and has been writing for nine hours, so now she's going to throw her pencil and indulge in a good cry. We don't blame her in the least.