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.
In September, I met Elizabeth Wein at Word on the Street. She explained that she actually went to Ravensbruck to see what it was like and read many survivors accounts to prepare herself for writing Rose Under Fire. It was very interesting to hear her discuss the book and helped me understand it on a deeper level. It took me two months until I felt emotionally ready to read the novel, and would have possibly put it off even longer if not for the fact that I chose it for a school book report.
Rose Under Fire is by far the most emotional novel I have ever read. While I didn’t cry, I was taken to some very dark and depressing places and also some heartrendingly hopeful ones. While Code Name verity was brilliantly plotted and executed, Rose Under Fire is brilliantly characterized and themed.
When I first met Rose, I didn’t feel like I had anything in common with her and her happy-go-lucky attitude slightly annoyed me. She is not completely naive and does understand the seriousness of war, but it’s in the way of someone discussing history; she believes that she will be safe and that nothing bad can happen to her. The little bit of humour that is in the book comes from her naivety and her belief that it will all go away and leave her unaffected.
Then I got to know her a little better, and I connected with her in a way I’ve never connected to another character before. She is the bravest person I have ever known. I’m tearing up just writing this. Rose is so so unbelievably brave, so filled with hope and strength. It is because of this that she survived, for if you just wanted to sit in the corner and cry, you wouldn’t survive. You had to somehow find the light in these horrible circumstances and hold on to it and never let it go out. I know that I myself would be unable to that; I don’t think many people can which is what made Rose so unbelievably strong.
Since hope is more necessary for survival than even water, Rose Under Fire is not as depressing as you might think. It is ultimately a story about holding onto hope and sharing hope and always being hopeful. Not the naive kind of hope, but the hope that there is still some good in the world; faith in one another. They were held together by the belief that even one of them were to escape and survive, they would be able to tell the world.
It also very much a story about friendship and support. Rose would not have survived without the help of the people she meets in the camp, and she herself risks her life for others. You cannot survive something as horrible as this on your own and knowing that you are not alone, that you are not the only one suffering is something very powerful. The friendship born in times like these is the strongest type because if you do not trust and rely on one another, you cannot survive.
The story is broken into three parts. The first is about Rose as an ATA pilot and is in the format of a journal. Code Name Verity focused a lot on the duties of the pilots, so Rose Under Fire doesn’t go into too much detail in that area and is more about Rose and her friends and family.
The second part is Ravensbruck. I had to read this whole section in one sitting because I was so connected to the story. I had to wait until Rose finally leaves the camp before I too could mentally leave. I have read Holocaust books before, have learned about it in school, but never before have I gotten so deep into life in a concentration camp. There was not a doubt in my mind that I was reading a survivor’s account because Rose is such a believable and real character. What goes on at Ravensbruck is horrific and sickening. The early morning wake up calls, the beatings, the march to the gas chambers and the utter disregard for human life.
Code Name Verity took a completely unique angle on the war, and while Rose Under Fire is not as unique, there are so many things I learned that I never knew before. Mainly the experiments done in the camp which sickened me. At the camp, doctors did horribly experiments on women, permanently mangling their legs in the name of science. These women called themselves Rabbits because they were treated no better that lab rats.
I think what got me the most was Rose’s poetry. I am a poet myself and while Rose’s writing conveyed emotion, it was through her poetry that I truly understood how she felt. I felt the depth of her emotions in every word and the gradual darkening of the mood over time. The poems make the story as powerful as it is.
The third part is about the Nuremburg trials. It is impossibly hard to tell people what you’ve gone through. Even Rose is unable to speak up thought she understands the necessity of testifying. The hardest line for me to read in the book was near the end where Rose is told that even Julie (from Code Name Verity) would have been unable to survive. I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you’ve read CNV you’ll understand why this line made me tear up.
To me the Holocaust always felt distant – I always understood the importance of never forgetting – but Rose Under Fire made it real. I cannot recommend this book enough.
Other books in the series: