Book Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
In 2012, no new release impressed me more (or made me cry harder) than Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. The author’s newest book, Rose Under Fire, is also set during World War II, and presents the horrors of war through the eyes of a fresh new heroine, Rose Justice.
When we first meet Rose, she is 18 years old, a feisty pilot from Pennsylvania who has volunteered to serve with the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary), a civilian division supporting the Royal Air Force in England by ferrying aircraft back and forth between bases, airfields, and repair centers. The ATA was never intended to see action — but as we see in Rose Under Fire, things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to.
While shielded from combat, the ATA pilots face the danger of flying damaged or faulty equipment — and even deadlier, there’s also the danger of incoming German V-1 rockets, known as flying bombs or “doodlebugs”. When Rose pursues and knocks down a doodlebug, she starts a chain of events that leads to her capture by German pilots — resulting in unimaginable horrors as she eventually finds herself a prisoner in the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp.
The author doesn’t shy away from presenting the appalling, inhuman suffering of the Ravensbrück prisoners. Worst off of all are the “Rabbits”, Polish prisoners who have been used as human guinea pigs in cruel, pointless medical experiments which killed many and left the rest horribly crippled. Rose is adopted within the camp by a close-knit group of prisoners, among them several Rabbits, and they all swear to tell the world, one way or another, what truly transpired hidden away behind the camp walls.
Rose is an admirable and loveable main character. She’s not naive, but she does come from a nurturing family in the safe and cozy world of the US — so that while her camp mates recount the years of wartime terror they’ve already lived through, Rose can only recall her birthday parties and swimming at the lake on warm summer days. It’s Rose’s good memories and her gift with words that help them all to survive, as Rose creates poems and stories that the other prisoners avidly soak up, her fantasy worlds providing distraction from the unending suffering in the camp as well as a glimpse of what happiness might once have been.
Within Rose’s camp family, bonds are strong and fierce, and Rose and the others display courage and devotion beyond what we might imagine. Those who survive only do so because of the others’ loyalty and sacrifice. Meanwhile, in the midst of starvation, endless roll calls in freezing weather, rampant disease, and the threat of sudden execution or disfiguring punishment, all the prisoners can do is get through each moment, determined above all to never let the names of the lost be forgotten.
Rose Under Fire is powerful, disturbing, sad, and lovely. The writing is unflinching, and yet also contains the beauty of Rose’s poetry, which she creates first in her head in the camp, and later records in the journals she uses to tell her story when she can’t face the idea of actually talking about her experiences with outsiders. Her lengthy poem “The Subtle Briar” speaks to the prisoners’ clinging to life, even in the face of terror and death:
When you cut down the hybrid rose,
its blackened stump below the graft
spreads furtive fingers in the dirt.
It claws at life, weaving a raft
of suckering roots to pierce the earth…
Rose Under Fire is a companion piece to Code Name Verity. Chronologically, it takes place after the events of Code Name Verity and includes a few characters from the earlier book — but I wouldn’t consider it a true sequel, as Rose Under Fire stands perfectly well on its own. Both books are remarkable achievements, taking young heroic women and placing them at the center of war, and endowing them with courage and grace even in the worst of times and circumstances. If you’ve read neither book, start with Code Name Verity, simply because certain outcomes in this book are referenced in Rose Under Fire. Again, both books certainly stand on their own, but I’d recommend reading them in the order written if only to avoid spoilers for the end of Code Name Verity.
Rose Under Fire lacks the intricate plot twists and reversals that make Code Name Verity so breathtaking. Because the book is told from Rose’s point of view, her survival is never truly in doubt. However, her horrifying ordeal and the complex stories of her fellow prisoners make Rose Under Fire a harrowing and emotional reading experience, and I found myself unable to put the book down until I reached the sad but inspiring end.
Author Elizabeth Wein, with these two books, has taken a chapter of history that may not be as immediately familiar to younger readers today and has brought it to life in vibrant, tangible detail. These books deserve all the praise they’ve received, and I have no hesitation about recommending them, for adult and young adult readers alike.
Title: Rose Under Fire
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Young adult