Plot: While ferrying a plane through France, ATA pilot and amateur poet Rose Justice is captured by Nazis. She is sent to the notorious women’s concentration camp known as Ravensbruck along with some French political prisoners. In the camp she is subject to torture, deprivation and random cruelty but manages to hold on to hope through the friendship and loyalty of her fellow prisoners. But will she be able to bear witness to the horrors of Ravensbruck and find justice for her fallen friends?
This review was based on an ARC received at BEA 2013.
Rose Under Fire is a companion book to last year’s amazing Code Name Verity. Maddie, from the first book, appears, there are more brave female pilots and it takes place during WWII but otherwise it is a completely different book. It is just as good – though perhaps more troubling – but very different. (But if I had to pick a favorite, I would have to reluctantly say Code Name Verity… a well written unreliable narrator gets me every time.)
Rose narrates the story. The first two sections, covering the time before and during her incarceration, are written in diary style while the third, covering the trials is a newspaper article. This gives an uncomfortable proximity to the events, one that I think is absolutely necessary for this kind of narrative. But Rose is a poet, as well as a pilot, and the novel is also full of her poetry. Some are beautiful, terrible poems about life in the camp and others are simple, painfully nostalgic rhymes about home. Though her story is fictional, Rose voice is authentic and her circumstances real and carefully researched.
The simple, matter of fact (and sometimes even funny) way that Rose describes the atrocities of Ravensbruck (the hunger, the violence, the hopelessness, the death), makes them, if anything, more horrifying. “Though I don’t know,” she says of one of her first friends in the camp, “if her hair ever grew back before they gassed her” (p 121). But it was the plight of the Rabbits, young Polish girls subjected to barbaric medical experiments, turned my stomach. These are images that will stick with me for a long, long time. For though the angry, sometimes nasty young Roza and sweet, artistic Karolina are fictional, the book pays tribute to the real Rabbits who were tortured at Ravensbruck: their names are printed in the background of the title page.
There are so many memorable characters in this book, I couldn’t do them justice. All are complex and even the best of them are forced to do things that we would consider uncivilized or unforgivable in order to survive. Would you be able to prop up the corpses of your fallen friends in order to fool the SS guards counting you? They are also capable of surprising acts of loyalty and generosity… even characters that should be enemies. Rose is a brave, intelligent young woman but her survival is not entirely due to courage. Some of it stubbornness and some is what Wein poetically calls “controlled flight into terrain”: she simply has no other choice but to fly blindly into danger.
This is not an easy book but it is well worth it the pain.
Rose Under Fire will be released in September 2013 and contains an ample bibliography for those who want to learn more about the horrors of Ravensbruck.