Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein
While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?
Elizabeth Wein, author of the critically-acclaimed and best-selling Code Name Verity, delivers another stunning WWII thriller. The unforgettable story of Rose Justice is forged from heart-wrenching courage, resolve, and the slim, bright chance of survival.
Thanks to Netgalley and Disney Hyperion for this eARC. This title will be released September 10th, 2013.
As of typing this paragraph, I finished Rose Under Fire about five hours ago and I still feel…humbled. I’m not quite sure how to review this book. How do you even begin to review something this important?
It’s a companion to Code Name Verity, which means that a few secondary characters show up (Jamie! Maddie! And Anna Engel—I should be careful what I wish for) but it is an altogether different story. I have to admit that I spent the (short) first bit of the book focusing more on other characters. Rose annoyed me, maybe because I was expecting another flash-bang performance like Verity’s narration, but mostly because she is privileged. She’s oblivious. She makes thoughtless comments to people who have seen horrible things, questions the validity of stories from inside concentration camps to people who have relatives there. Here’s my advice: commit to getting through the first part, because once Rose ends up in Ravensbruck, you will never read another work of fiction quite like this.
This is not a suspenseful, guns-and-knives read like Code Name Verity was. Because the story moves just a little more slowly, you have time to take in everything. The greatest failing of the way we talk about the Holocaust is that we lose sight of the atrocities in a sea of statistics. This book gives full impact to the horrifying details: girls tied down for medical experiments that left them permanently maimed or dead, people so hungry they will try to eat their own hands, brave and beautiful people gassed to death for no reason. Women memorizing the list of ‘Rabbits’—the subjects of the medical experiments—so that, if they ever escaped, they could give those names to the world. Only those names out of the millions of other names the world would never hear, because the scale is so unknowable that a camp full of dying people has to decide who will be remembered.
The characters in this book are so strong, in the worst possible situations. People starving and freezing to death still find ways to fight back and keep their humanity. It’s incredible to me that in the middle of so many horrors, these characters will still give you hope. There’s friendship and courage and selflessness, and tiny gestures that seem enormous, and sympathetic people in the most unexpected places.
I think that, all by itself, is one of the most important things about this book: the whole thing is so much bigger than the individual that there are people committing atrocities and you feel sorry for them anyway. And everything starts out so civilized. When Rose is first captured, everyone is polite. She’s given papers, told she’ll be given work. There’s always a sane explanation. Which is how the Holocaust started: people in authority made horrible things sound reasonable, and everyone else went along with it.
I did wonder how I felt about a book giving voice to Holocaust survivors when there are still Holocaust survivors to speak for themselves, but—I think the most important thing is that the voice is there. It’s so, so easy for people to forget. The author’s note immediately directs you to the realities of the subject matter the instant the story is over, listing historical facts and directing the reader to real survivor accounts. In a way, it’s a gateway book to the rest of the story, which is too huge for anyone to really comprehend, and which we might otherwise avoid if it wasn’t cloaked in fiction. Which makes me all the more glad this book exists.
I’m not making this sound at all inviting, so let me clarify any doubts right now: you need to read this book. It will hurt, but in the best possible way, and you’ll be glad you did it. It’s a story of survival and beautiful things emerging from horrible places. Rose sees the very worst of humanity and is changed forever, but she also learns to live with the world again, and that’s not something I would miss for the world. She looks at people with new perspective, and learns to find happiness again with the very best friends she could hope for. The story is one of terrible things, but it ends with hope. I, for one, will never be able to forget it.