Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Genre: Historical WWII fiction / Young Adult
Publisher: Electric Monkey, 2013
Synopsis: Rose Justice is a young American ATA pilot, delivering planes and taxiing pilots for the RAF in the UK during the summer of 1944. A budding poet who feels vividly alive while flying, she is forced to confront the hidden atrocities of war – and the most fearsome.
They yelled in French and in Polish, English and German. “TELL THE WORLD! TELL THE WORLD! TELL THE WORLD!”
I read Code Name Verity, Wein’s first YA WWII novel about women during the war, quite a few years ago now. At the time, I loved it, as the World Wars are a time period I’m very interested in learning about. So, when I stumbled across the fact Wein had published another similar novel, I was over the moon. However, part of me worried it wouldn’t live up to the expectations of the first book.
That worry was pretty stupid, because of course Rose Under Fire was great. It tells the story of a young American girl who puts her passion for flying to use as she delivers planes for the allies in Britain, taking them to where they need to be for repairs or where fighter pilots need them. Rose is frustrated by the fact that the female ATA pilots cannot travel abroad. However, she has a few family connections, and strings are pulled that allow her to fly to a part of France recently liberated by the allies. That’s where something goes wrong.
The story has a slow start, but it’s not a bad kind of slow. It sets up Rose’s character well, the position of women in the air force, and what it was like for those in Britain during the Blitz. Wein is brilliant at crafting a believable voice for her first-person narrators. Both Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire are written in diary format. The little descriptions Wein throws in of Rose’s childhood are detailed yet short, building up a believable portrait of Rose Justice.
Rose is headstrong yet romantic, and it’s these qualities that get her through the horrors of the war as one headstrong mistake lands her in enemy territory, away from the relative safety she has known in Britain and America.
We don’t initially find out quite what’s happened to Rose. Her diary ends abruptly a quarter of the way through when she is supposed to be heading home from France and the voice changes to a friend. From this section, we glean that Rose has gone missing, presumed dead. Then, Rose’s voice returns some six months later. She has made it back from Ravensbruck, the concentration camp for women.
The rest of the book follows Rose as she writes about the horrors she has witnessed and endured, as well as the struggles she faces readjusting to life after the war. Wein details a horrific and vivid depiction of Ravensbruck, making sure not to dress-up the story in a way that makes it easier to read. This part of the story is harrowing, yet tinged with hope, as Rose finds a surrogate family in the camp, with two stand-out characters being Roza and Irina.
Roza in particular was a captivating character, especially because of who she was. Roza is one of the Rabbits, Polish girls who were experimented on by the Nazis in Ravensbruck. These experiments involved, in very simple terms, cutting into the girls legs and studying infection, as well as removing parts of bones. As a result, Roza struggles to walk, but what has been done to her only enhances her already feisty, and sometimes heartless, nature. Roza can be really quite rude and spiteful, and it seems these are qualities she has had since childhood. Yet, despite the fact she can say some very nasty things, I really warmed to her. She’s determined, vicious, intent on justice for what has happened to the Rabbits. You can’t entirely blame her for her sometimes savage remarks after the way she’s been treated since her capture at age 14. She was definitely the most nuanced, as well as flawed yet likeable, character.
Then there is Irina, who is a Soviet fighter pilot. Like Roza, she can also be a bit hard, but together with Rose she is instrumental in the survival of this ragtag family of girls: Rose, Roza, Irina, Karolina and Lisette. They are determined that the world will know what has gone on here, that the world will find out what was done to the Rabbits. As the American, Rose is singled out as the one with the connections to get the story out there.
I really grew to love these characters. Even at the darkest moments, they stick together, intent on getting Roza and the other Rabbits’ story out of the camp. Sometimes when reading, I struggled with the fact that this all really happened. Whilst Rose’s personal story or Karolina’s or Lisette’s didn’t specifically happen, Ravensbruck did exist, and so did the Rabbits.
I thought the story was brilliantly written. Harrowing, hopeful, and not afraid to shy away from the realities of the war and the lengths these women would go to to make sure the world knew, to make sure that at least some of them got out alive.
Perhaps my only criticism, which is not actually a criticism, is that it ended too soon. I was so engrossed that when I turned the final page, I was shocked to see the notes from the author. I turned back and forth, confused, and then re-read the final passage, in disbelief that I wouldn’t find out any more.
I cannot recommend Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity enough. Even if you’re not a fan of WWII fiction, I urge you to read them. The writing and characterisation is great, and the stories open your eyes to the atrocities that have been committed, and the hope that endured.
Sorry for the slightly late review, but I finished Rose Under Fire just before I went on holiday for a week! Anyway, have you read either of these books? What did you think of them? Or do you want to read them? Let me know in the comments below!