Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Series: Code Name Verity, #2
Published: 2013, Disney Hyperion
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
Source: Library book
Contains spoilers for Code Name Verity (my review)
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Hope is treacherous, but how can you live without it? When you lost hope, you turned into a schmoozich, nothing more than a starved mouth and snatching hands that even the guards ignored except when they were counting everybody – or you died.
Elizabeth Wein has done it again. Although, if I'm being perfectly honest with myself here, I didn't expect anything less from the incredibly talented author who wrote Code Name Verity. While both Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity deal with strong female friendships, Allied female pilots, and women placed in unfathomable situations, they tell very different stories. Many of the historical elements of Code Name Verity have been expanded upon more prominently here, and Rose Under Fire could almost be considered to be politically-driven. While Julie and Maddie's story describes some of the suffering that could have happened, the trials and tribulations of Rose and her comrades are more concretely rooted in historical fact.
It is 1944 and the war effort is beginning to slow down, but that knowledge does not deter American Rose Justice from traveling overseas to become an Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) pilot for the Allied Forces. It becomes quickly apparent that Rose, a naive but idealistic aspiring poet with years of experience flying planes but a life of little hardship, has no idea what she volunteered for. Written in an epistolary style, Rose Under Fire recounts Rose's experiences as an ATA pilot, as a prisoner of war, and as a concentration camp survivor, from August of 1944 to December of 1946.
Rose Under Fire is a story about loss, hopelessness, and all forms of suffering. The story opens with Rose's observations from a fellow ATA pilot's funeral. She is supposed to write up a report detailing the accident. There's a bit of guilt on Rose's part, but she admits that she has no idea where to begin and seems to take a more clinical approach. Although Rose has started to realize that serving in the war is nothing like the propaganda she was given back in the States, there's still a curtain that shields her eyes (and her brain) from fully processing all that has been happening in Europe for the past few years. It is only after Rose is captured and sent behind enemy lines that the curtain rises abruptly and Rose loses her naivete for good, forced to adopt a new understanding of humanity's capacity for evil.
Rose Under Fire is not merely the story of a young American's loss of innocence in the face of the horrors of war, however; it is the story of the multitudes of women who were affected by the Axis Powers in the final years of World War II, most especially the prisoners of Ravensbrück women's concentration camp. And this is where the magic of this story lies.
For this is also a story about life, and the extreme measures that people take to survive and to help others survive. Once at Ravensbrück, Rose comes to realize just how petty her concerns and complaints as an Allied pilot truly are. A mislabeled nationality, a few close encounters with doodlebug flying bombs, and scanty rations are nothing compared to what the other women at the camp endured before coming there, and while there. All the women at Ravensbrück have lost something; most have lost everything. Most compelling is the friendship that Rose forms with a number of young Polish girls, referred to as the Rabbits. Due to their nationality, youth, and pure bad luck, these girls have essentially been tortured in the name of "scientific advancement." Their story is horrible enough, but through Rose Wein describes many more of the horrors that awaited women at this concentration camp: daily executions, starvation, lack of medicine, lack of hope.
Rose and her friends do manage to find hope, however, in small acts of rebellion: pocketing extra rations of foods and meds for those who need them most, smuggling out messages with their names, asking Rose to write poems about that elusive concept of hope. The camaraderie that forms between the women is perhaps the only grain of hope that readers can discern from Rose's captivity. They all are suffering, but there's a bit of comfort in the fact that they're together, that they understand what each other is going through.
Rose as a protagonist is not very similar to Julie of Code Name Verity (one of my top fictional narrators, I think), and I missed Julie's witty and unreliable narration. I do think, however, Wein's choice in protagonist for this story is perfect. I had little difficulty in seeing myself through Rose, and I'm sure that many readers can attest to the same. While Rose lived in America, the war was something far-off and distant. While she served as an ATA pilot, the war was still more something she heard of, her own missions kept out of harm's way. Until suddenly they weren't. It's easy to dismiss stories about World War II as old and no longer relevant, and getting easier as fewer and fewer people remain who lived through any of those experiences. Like Rose, through this story readers become exposed to some terrible truths about World War II. Terrible, but so very important.
As I've mentioned many times already, Rose Under Fire is no Code Name Verity. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. For their beautiful writing and focus on important aspects of history, I will read all future works of historical fiction that Elizabeth Wein decides to write.
Rating: 5 stars