Rose Justice is a young pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War. On her way back from a semi-secret flight in the waning days of the war, Rose is captured by the Germans and ends up in Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi women’s concentration camp. There, she meets an unforgettable group of women, including a once glamorous and celebrated French detective novelist whose Jewish husband and three young sons have been killed; a resilient young girl who was a human guinea pig for Nazi doctors trying to learn how to treat German war wounds; and a Nachthexen, or Night Witch, a female fighter pilot and military ace for the Soviet air force. These damaged women must bond together to help each other survive.
In this companion volume to the critically acclaimed novel Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein continues to explore themes of friendship and loyalty, right and wrong, and unwavering bravery in the face of indescribable evil.
Warning: this review contains MINOR spoilers. Like, spoilers for things that become obvious within the first 20% or 50-70 pages of the book, and aren’t really big reveals. If you don’t like any spoilers, don’t read. But if you’re okay with a little bit of prior info, read on.
This is, once again, one of the toughest reviews I’ve had to write, because there’s so much to say about Rose Under Fire, and so little that I can really say about it. As I learned from reading Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein’s first book – so much is in the experience of reading her books, and it’s hard for me to describe much without delving into that feeling.
So here goes. A very feelings-driven review.
Rose Under Fire started VERY slowly for me, much like Code Name Verity. It took me so long to get into Rose, even though she’s fun, sweet, young, and a talented pilot, and yes, she knows a few characters from the first book. That part was cute, but I also kind of felt like the beginning of the book lead-up was nothing but a Rose character study, and I felt like it was only there to contrast with the horrors of what came next.
That said, what came next was brilliantly and boldly written. Elizabeth Wein does not pull any punches with us. If you found the intensity and the brutality of Code Name Verity hard, get ready. This is just as hard, just as matter-of-fact, and just as gasp-inducing.
Rose’s story isn’t as exciting or daring as Verity was, but in many ways, her story is more important. There aren’t the big surprises or the crazy reveals that we got in Code Name Verity. We know going in that Rose will be going to a concentration camp, and we suspect that she will endure unspeakable horrors because we know the basics about the Holocaust. But the story still drew me in, because it’s about people who couldn’t fight for themselves, and who were already condemned to die, and how those people fought anyway, with no hope.
With Verity, her life was dependent on her writing more. Rose’s life was dependent on…whatever the SS agents guarding her felt like. It was random. It was made to feel unimportant. She literally became just a number in a group of women, tortured, ravaged, starved and humiliated.
But this is where Wein differentiates Rose Under Fire from other Holocaust narratives. The description stops being about the horrors and becomes a documentation of friendship, sacrifice and womanhood during WWII. It’s not about being heroic. It’s just about how a family of women work to take care of each other.
For me, though, the brilliance of this book is not that it focuses on a person or a group of people in a concentration camp that deal with unimaginable horrors. I’ve read many a story about that, and while this book makes you “OMG” and “WTF” a lot, it’s not the be all and end all of concentration camp stories.
To me, what makes this book special and different is that it focuses on the AFTER, the pain of surviving. Rose Under Fire reminded me so much of that Season 5 line from Buffy, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.” What happens after you endure the brutality, the wildness of a concentration camp? What happens when you see human beings at their most base, animal-like moments? What happens when you become that?
For me, that was the best part of the book, the remembering, the knowledge of what you’ve seen, and the attempt to continue to live, fight, and figure out what to do next. That’s where Rose really grows, and that’s where the book really comes to life and becomes a unique piece. And that’s where I feel that Wein has given us an incredible story – one that isn’t about heroism, but about being brave in both the best of times and the worst of times.
It’s All in the Words: Rose is a poet, so we get treated to some amazing poetry written in the face of suffering and afterwards. Like in Code Name Verity, WORDS and just the writing down of things are so important to the story.
Realism: So much of Rose Under Fire is based on real descriptions of Ravensbruck, of real women…Wein actually discusses the realism at the end of the novel, and it is fascinating to hear about her research (and horrifying to know how much of the book is what really happened).
The Final Word:
While Rose Under Fire is a quieter book than Code Name Verity, it is no less brilliant. Code Name Verity is daring and heroic. Rose Under Fire is more thoughtful and inspiring. It teaches us more, and it reminds us not only of the importance of words and the need to tell stories, but also to never forget.
Recommended for: EVERYONE 15 and up (but I think Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire would be fascinating in a high school literature, social studies, or history class for discussion of WWII, collective memory, storytelling…so much to mine there).