When I first heard that Elizabeth Wein would publish a companion novel to Code Name Verity, I admit I was hesitant. Quite simply, it made me nervous because I wasn’t sure if it would not be doomed to fail in comparison. Admittedly, I was not quite as an emotional wreck after Code Name Verity as many, but the story still had a major impact and I definitely loved it and its accomplishments. So, quite contrary to what you might expect given how much I enjoyed Wein’s first WWI novel, I had low expectations going in to Rose Under Fire.
Rose Under Fire is about an American pilot who is based on the same airbase as Maddie. When she flies a plane to France she is captured by the Nazi’s and interned in Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. There, Rose falls in with a group of fellow prisoners called “the Rabbits”, named for the medical experiments performed on them. It is their friendship and loyalty that gives Rose a shot at surviving.
Now, as much as I am theoretically aware of the importance of retelling the story of World War II, I admit that I often suffer from WWII fatigue when I contemplate reading another book on the subject. It is unfeeling of me, and I am ashamed of experiencing those feelings. Nevertheless, they are often there at the back of my mind. It definitely played a role in my hesitance to pick up Rose Under Fire. It is completely ridiculous to even ponder if “we need another story about a concentration camp”, but yes, for a moment, that is exactly what I thought.
Now, I am going to come back to that fatigue later, but first let me be quick to assure you that I was mistaken. On so many counts. Yes, there are parallels to Code Name Verity, as there are characters that appear in both novels (one of which I hadn’t realised I had met before until after finishing), and in some ways, both books explore female friendships in strained and difficult circumstances. But the story itself could not be more different. The excitement of Code Name Verity is not copied here, as there are no surprise twists and turns (although definitely the appearance of the character-I-missed-at-first was a surprise in its own right and very interesting). It is, I felt, much more a novel that tells about the disillusionment, fear, and suffering that comes with war, whereas Code Name Verity, without disguising the horrors of war, had a more heroic slant, perhaps? And exactly because this is such a different story, I was able to let go of my hesitance if this would be as good. Instead, I was only a few pages in when I forgot about that worry completely and the story began speaking for itself.
All of this talk about the difference between the excitement of the spy and mystery element in Code Name Verity and this book is not to say that Rose Under Fire is not a compelling read. Honestly? I think it might be more so, at least it had better pace and immediacy at the outset, which I felt was perhaps a little slow in Code Name Verity (though still, also, enjoyable and wonderful). Basically, once I started reading, I did not put it down. Which, in my case, meant that I stayed up the whole night reading it. I was still reading by 6 am. I dozed for 2 hours, before I read it until the very end. Rose’s story is such an emotional journey, on so many levels, that it will not let you go until after you have finished it. And even then, it will probably stay with you for a while.
Rose is a wonderful character. I think writing characters to fall in love with as a reader, be it central or more marginal ones, is definitely one of Wein’s strengths. At the same time, I cannot help but agree with Booksmuggler Ana here that the story is not necessarily that of Rose. It is a story of a collective but many-sided experience made personal through a number of people that is then narrated by Rose. Sometimes more as witness, since she is not in the camp as long as the people she befriends, but Rose’s own experiences also serve as a gradual build-up towards the major things that happen in camp and Rose’s own suffering is never forgotten.
Rose Under Fire consists of different parts that trace Rose’s experience at the airbase before she leaves to France, and then resumes after the war, in the form of memories of what happened. Through these different parts of the novel, we see Rose mature, as people so often have to mature in circumstances of war, while simultaneously contrasting hope with disillusionment. It is really interestingly done, and builds gradually throughout the novel, while at the same time, other ideas of hope and heroism arise in the character’s struggles. No longer just Rose’s, because Rose is now always a part of a larger group, a group that employs different mechanisms to get through the war, while having their eye on a collective idea of hope or survival by getting the truth out to the world.
If that seems vague it is because I am unable to capture the sophistication of what Wein does here. She manages to portray the many sides of war, the collective suffering in the concentration camps, but also the personal side of making sense of what happens, the strategies of survival involved, the diverse emotional responses, and the different ways in which each person “deals” (that seems too soft a word to use, doesn’t it?) with what occurs. Wein never judges, never makes one the better choice, but instead simply manages to evoke the complexity of humanity and war. And while a novel set in a concentration camp necessarily involves the collective suffering involved, it renders these experiences extremely personal and individual.
Rose Under Fire then manages to transport that complexity to the last part of the novel, which I feel I have to talk about, but that some might consider to hold spoilers.
[POSSIBLE SPOILERS WARNING]
Rose Under Fire is a survivors narrative. And this is, I felt, where the novel truly rises above and beyond much of what it had already accomplished. Because, on top of capturing the complexities of war, it also asks the questions that we know many survivors have asked themselves, that is, the guilt in surviving, the “why me and why not..?”, the difficulties of finding a place for your experiences after the war and the different and highly personal approaches to that, in which Wein, again, manages not to label anyone, but instead imparts several perspectives that are different, but not better or worse. In this case, it means that the promise the girls we get to know make to each other, the idea of truth as hope, is dealt with differently than many of them expected when they were in the camp. I would not say that they do not hold on to that thought, although the outside world definitely seems to sanction only one form of witness and this is not the format everyone chooses. But, through these ideas of hope, truth, and survival, Wein shows the different ways in which survivors make sense of a situation that completely alters their life and worldview. (Ana does a much better job than I did at explaining this).
[END OF SPOILERS]
In the end, let me return to this notion of WWII fatigue. What I think Wein managed to accomplish is that she shows how every personal experience deserves to be heard without enforcing the need to tell. It is easy to lose track of the individual in the millions who lost their lives. And that somehow, makes it easier to turn away from a subject because you feel you already know it in its abstract form. But by acknowledging the personal and individual, and how everyone shapes their lives in different, although they might be familiar, ways, abstract stories can be rendered urgent again. It also brings to the fore once more, something which I have discussed many times as a history student: how fictionalised history can at times bring history to life in ways that are difficult to accomplish if you have to stick to the academic format. It does not make these stories better, or more deserving to be heard. But it can make them more immediate. And in my case, it made me shake of my prejudices and become interested in the Second World War again.
Oh right, one more thing before I forget: Remember how I was not as much of an emotional wreck as everyone else was after reading Code Name Verity? Well, let’s just say that I cannot voice that complaint about Rose Under Fire. If you are going to read this book (and I think you should), be sure to have tissues at hand. I don’t remember exactly where it is in the book page-wise, but somewhere just past the middle? From there on out, I cried and cried and cried. The book is devastating, but as I hope I have shown (strange to say given the subject matter): in a good way.