Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Release date: September 10th, 2013
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Series: companion to Code Name Verity
Source: ARC from BEA
Rating: I don't think this glorious book can be summed up in one rating. Anything I say feels inadequate.
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.
I honestly have no idea how to write this review. I can't think of any clever, funny, giffy ways to say that this book is the most powerful and moving book I've read since Code Name Verity. I can't think of other ways to explain that the prose is something magical, but never purple or flowery. I can give this book all the stars and all the exclamation points and flaily gifs I want, but there's no way I'd be able to portray just how incredible of a novel Rose Under Fire is.
Rose Under Fire was the very first ARC I grabbed at BEA. The word was they were dropping it the second the doors opened the first day, at nine am, that there'd be stacks of them at the Disney Hyperion booth and it'd be first come, first serve. The second those doors opened, I BOOKED IT. I power-walked like a FIEND to get this. And oh, did it pay off.
For the curious, you will be able to read this book without having read Code Name Verity (but you shouldn't, because Code Name Verity is amazing). We first meet Rose Justice, plucky, feisty American teenager and transport pilot in England in 1944. Rose is a brave, adventuresome girl who loves to fly and writes gorgeous poetry in her journal. Rose's voice is fabulous, and so different from Verity's was. I suppose the only critique I'd have is that the beginning is a bit slow, and like CNV, it's full of technical plane stuff and wartime details, which I personally love. I like learning just what life was like for the ATA girls and the men of the RAF and the people of Britain during the Blitz. I could eat up those details all day long. Wein is a master of research and giving so much just by dropping one small fact.
But this early section, before Rose is captured and sent to Ravensbruck, is necessary. It shows Rose as she was before and reunites us with Maddie (SOBBBBBBS). You learn that Rose is both the kind of girl who takes risky chances and one who doesn't quite yet understand the severity of the war around her. Oh, she understands that people are dying (the book opens with the death of a fellow ATA girl), and she understands butter shortages and living far away from home. But she doesn't yet grasp the full scale of the atrocities happening in Europe, but as we know, she's about to.
It was awful reading that first section, knowing what's about ot happen to our bright and shiny Rose, reading her poetry full of hope and soaring words. All she wants to do is fly and knock bombers out of the sky, but it's this daring that seals her fate, and just like that, we've reached the meat of the story: Rose's incarceration at Ravensbruck.
I don't even know how to write about this. The first part is conveyed in diary format, as Rose's everyday journal. The Ravensbruck section is written by Rose three weeks after she has left the camp, so the mood is radically different. It's utterly heartbreaking, but so stunning.It's an unflinching account of the horrors these women underwent, but it's also a tale of the strength and friendship of the prisoners.
You know, it almost makes me laugh to write about. What was the first thing you worried about when you found yourself a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, Rosie? Gosh darn it, holes in my nylon hose!
That's why I love Rose. She made me laugh even under horrendous circumstances. The friendships she finds in the camp are what get her, and the reader, through. There's prickly Roza, a Polish girl who's one of "the Rabbits", aka victims of Nazi "experiments". They've destroyed her legs completely. She and the other Rabbits are protected by the entire camp, because they're the evidence. Everybody wants them to get out alive, because they physically bear proof of Nazi evil. She also swears like a sailor and has a fearsome temper. Oh, I love Roza. There's Elodie, the French girl who's a wizard at smuggling contraband through her friends and adding personal touches. There's Irina, tall, fearsome Soviet fighter pilot. OH, AND THERE'S A CHARACTER FROM CODE NAME VERITY SNUCK IN. Just to make you die a little.
Hope--you think of hope as a bright thing, a strong thing, sustaining. But it's not. It's the opposite. It's simply this: lumps of stale bread stuck down your shirt. Stale gray bread eked out with ground fish bones, which you won't eat because you're going to give it away, and maybe you'll get a message through to your friend. That's all you need.
This book is not a history lesson on the Holocaust. The Jewish experience is never really mentioned, because this book is from the POV of Rose, and she's housed with political prisoners: French resistance fighters, Polish Rabbits, and Soviet pilots. And it's about heroism in it's smallest, most difficult, most everyday forms, and sacrifice and love and perseverance and ahhhhh
"You should have seen what I got up to when I worked in the post office," Micheline said. "We'd put big black censor stamps all over instructions being sent to German officers, or we'd steam open envelopes and swap letters around so they went to the wrong people, or steam off stamps so there was postage due--and anything that came from Paris with a German name on it we'd return to sender. Every now and then we'd send off a mailbag with a burning cigarette butt tied up inside it. My God, I miss the thrill of being a civil servant!"
In this book, the horrors happen up close. The tragedies are given faces and names (so many names). Rose's eyes are fully opened, and they'll never be closed again. The only thing that helps is poetry, and so Rose writes dozens and dozens of poems for her fellow inmates. These poems... man. I don't even... Seriously, you just have to read them yourselves. I'm getting all verklempt just thinking about them. The book is full of horror and pain and evil, but it's the poetry, and the warmth, and the strong people who stand out. So many vibrant people live and die in fictional Ravensbruck that it begins to impress upon you just how many real people lived and died in Ravensbruck.
Again, it's the tiny things that crack your heart open. Yes, I felt teary thinking about gas chambers and brutal beating and bullets to the head. But it was a silly song about painted toenails that broke me. It was Rose singing her poetry to the other girls in the dark. It was Irina's paper airplanes, Elodie's embroidered blue roses, and Rose thinking about her family at home and the way her life used to be.
READ THIS BOOK. And get your tissues ready. And just... be ready to feel everything. Elizabeth Wein is a master. By definition, she's chosen a subject matter that will connect with every reader with a soul. But it's her execution of it that puts her in a league above the rest. It's her prose, woven with pain and hope, the way she paints such a rich historical setting with just a detail (in Europe, they'd put duct tape in an X over the windows to prevent them from shattering in a bomb blast), and the subtleties of the characters. It's easy to make a big, tragic death sad, but how Wein really acheives greatness is in how she depicts their lives. Because ultimately, that's what this book is about: living, living, living.