Rose Under Fire: Elizabeth Wein

I finished Rose Under Fire, a companion novel to Code Name Verity, this morning. Despite being ready, this time, for a horrifying and very tragic story, I was still horrified and actually had a few tears in my eyes by the time I was done. Let me get this straight, though– I really don’t cry while reading books. I’ve only ever cried twice before, and one of those times was because of Code Name Verity. Ms. Wein creates a narrative so twisted and stunningly awful that tears seem like a given part of reading the book. Unless you’re truly steel-hearted, I don’t know how you could read this without shedding a single one.

Rose Under Fire follows the story of a young American woman, Rose Justice, working alongside her British counterparts; her job, when she is captured, is to transport a fighter plane from Paris to England. The first part of this book is Rose recounting her days working with Maddie (!! who comes back from Code Name Verity and is now married to Jamie,) and other girls, other pilots, while struggling to come to terms with the war. She recalls days where they are under fire, reading about the travesties happening in war-torn countries, and other sad tidbits of life… but she also has a lot of hope. She’s falling in love for the first time with a handsome young British soldier named Nick. She’s made close friends. She’s working towards a cause. Things are going relatively okay for Rose. Unfortunately, that all changes when she tries to conduct an aerial ramming technique– taran– on a German fighter plane. She succeeds, but is surrounded by three German pilots who very kindly escort her into Nazi-occupied Germany.
Now Rose is caught, and forced to undergo with worst seven months (I think it was seven months?) of her young life.

The reason I like this book so much is because you’re getting a look into concentration camps from the point of view of someone who’s not Jewish at all– but a political prisoner. Things don’t change much in terms of the torture and trauma that Rose Justice undergoes, but she has a different perspective on things. Most WW2 novels that follow Jewish prisoners in these camps are written from the perspective of someone who has lived their life as a civilian, utterly unaware of the travesties of war. Rose and, in the previous novel, Verity, knew exactly what they were getting into. Even if Rose wasn’t aware of the existence of these concentration camps, she examines everything with a far more calculating mindset. Most of her inner monologue consists of actively trying to keep the women in her camp safe, especially the Rabbits, who are prisoners that were experimented on by the German scientists. The Rabbits are the most protected and valuable people in the camp, because they are living proof of the horrors that these girls have been subjected to at the hands of their Nazi captors. It’s really refreshing to read a Holocaust book where the main character has a plan of action– which is to get at least one Rabbit out alive. They even make up a song to remember the names of all of the Rabbits, which is both heartbreaking and brilliant.

Another interesting thing about this story is that it’s written in Rose’s perspective after she reaches the US Embassy, post-being-captured. She’s writing about her escape attempt and her time in the concentration camp while staying at the Ritz, recovering. It’s a really nouveau attempt at writing this sort of story, I think, because Ms. Wein intertwines Rose’s recovery with her memoirs about the camp. Rose talks about the way things are now, seven months after she disappeared, about how the world has moved on without her. She confronts the reality of people not believing that the Holocaust was a real thing– her own mother can’t believe it. She is trying to remember how to feel alive, look alive, and be alive, when her life stopped seven months ago.

There’s one line in this book that really, really hurt, but a little context is needed. When Rose first flies over Germany, accompanied by a much kinder German gentleman, he points out the women’s concentration camp that she will later be imprisoned in: Ravensbrück. He calls it “a pilot’s pinpoint,” because many German planes use it to figure out which way is north. When she’s way up in the sky, she notes that Ravensbrück looks like an abandoned factory– and then several months later, during an air-raid drill, she and the other women are forced to run outside during an air raid drill and lie down in the center of the camp, staring up at the Allied planes that cross over them. Some women cry for help, but most are silent because when you cry, you are shot and killed. Rose watches the planes go by, knowing that the Allies won’t rescue them from their personal Hell: “… they’d be too high and it was too dark for them to see any of the forty thousand women lying facedown on the damp gravel, trapped in our wire-and-concrete cage.
A pilot’s pinpoint. That’s all.”

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