Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire - Elizabeth WeinRose Under Fire – Elizabeth Wein
Disney Hyperion, September 2013

ARC from Netgalley
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

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.

Other Opinions: The Book Smugglers, Things Mean a Lot, Capricious Reader, Steph Su Reads, Bookworm1858, Chachic’s Book Nook, Yours?

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14 responses to “Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

  1. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    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

    yesss me too. With the exception of stuff about Asia, I feel I could still read a ton of more stories on that, but American/Euro stuff I definitely feel a sense of fatigue over (great way of putting it by the way!)

    but I agree Rose Under Fire escapes that–it’s a great read and important book.

    • More about WWII in Asia! Yes, that would be lovely. I am thinking if I have ever actually read anything about that? Have you? Would you recommend any particular titles?

  2. You know, I recently read a book that was set in Eastern Europe during World War II, and I was surprised at how enthralling I found it. This isn’t to say that I don’t expect Rose Under Fire to be wonderful, or that I don’t think it’s a story worth telling–it’s just that I think the fatigue I sometimes feel about WWII stories happens around reading the same sort of story over and over again.

    • It is interesting that you should mention that. In a sense, yes, it may be the fact that we are told the same stories instead of stories from different perspectives. I have to admit that most of the stories are know are based in the Netherlands, or around the Netherlands (and even then it is most nonfiction instead of fiction). War time Britain, for example, is rather “new” to me.

      There was one thought that lingered in the back of my mind while reading this, and this was the choice of protagonist. I think it makes sense and this is not meant as a detriment to the book or the author. But I do find the idea of which protagonists are appealing adn marketable interesting. Could we have heard the story of the Russian pilot instead of the American one? I think we could have. I think the story would have worked as well (and might have been slightly more “new”). But I do wonder if it would have been considered to have as much appeal, somehow? It is not to say that the story told here is not worth telling. As I said, Wein has convinced me, more than I have been for years upon years, that there are many interesting and gripping stories to be told, even about situations we have read about before. It is just that in general, I wonder at how conceived relatability (by marketers or even by readers in a general sense) relates to their nationalities and the narratives told about them.

  3. I loved this book–great review.

  4. I was like in that I was not that much of an emotional wreck after reading Code Name Verity. I thought it was ingenious and well-written but not emotionally involving. The fact that this had more of an effect on you makes me curious to read it.

    • I definitely think this was the more emotional one. But then I am apparently the exception when it comes to Code Name Verity (though that did impact me, but not as I had expected, possibly because of the build-up around the emotional impact that I had read about on blogs?) I’ll be interested to hear what you think, if you end up reading this.

  5. I was approved to read this, but it won’t download for me. So bugged!

    • Oh :( That’s so sad! And now, of course, I think it isn’t available anymore. This has happened to me sometimes and it made me so sad. I hope you do get to read it in one form or other though!

  6. Code Name Verity is my favorite book I’ve read this year. I’m so looking forward to Rose Under Fire. Thanks for the review (I skipped the spoilers paragraph — I’ll try to remember to come back and read it some day).

  7. I can’t wait to read this one! Glad to hear it’s different but just as good as Code Name Verity.

  8. I was such a wreck after finishing this-even now I can’t even think about without welling up and I don’t think I could ever read it again just because it’s so intense.

  9. I thought I had commented previously because I only agreed to myself to pick this up after reading your review. The reason is that I was not such a fan of Code Name Verity. At the beginning of this one, I thought it would be too similar, but once Part One was over, it quickly turned sui generis, and I thought it was excellent. I agree with Teresa however in that I did not get emotionally invested, but that may be a function of my own pain-defense-mechanism rather than a problem with the author’s writing. I tend to shift automatically into intellectualizing mode when dealing with Holocaust accounts. Also, I think there are two elements of this book that distinguish it from the usual Holocaust fare (if one may call it that). One is that it is set in a political camp, which was quite different from the death camps (not to say that it was great by any means but definitely a different and not-as-well-known experience) and second is her focus on the Rabbits. She has made a whole website about them, by the way, showing their pictures and commemorating them. It is here: https://sites.google.com/site/elizabethewein/rose-under-fire-the-technical-details-background-and-further-reading/the-ravensbroeck-rabbits

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