by Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Publication Date: September 10th 2013
Format read: Kindle E-Book
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 picked this up fully knowing that it was an Elizabeth Wein novel, aka that it would rip out my heartstrings and make me cry bitter tears in the name of friendship. If you don’t believe me, go read Code Name Verity, which is on the list of my favorite books of all time. What I didn’t realize when I settled down with it for a bit of light reading was that IT WAS ABOUT THE CONCENTRATION CAMPS, especially RAVENSBRUCK. I still don’t know how I missed that, but I did. Consequently, I stayed up until somewhere around 4 in the morning, and then cried like a baby. Be forewarned.
Rose Justice is a young American girl, fresh out of high school and determined to help out with the war effort. She ends up in the ATA, largely thanks to an influential British uncle, and is ferrying planes around during Operation Overlord. But, when one trip to France goes very, very awry, she is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbruck. The story tells of her friendship with the Rabbits, Polish girls who have been medically experimented on in horrible, horrible ways, and Irina, a Soviet fighter pilot. Together, they help each other to stay strong despite all of the cruelty they are subjected to, and they help each other to survive.
This was marketed as a companion novel to Code Name Verity, but it is NOT a sequel. There are a few overlapping characters, some quite surprising, and it deals with WWII and planes, but that’s about as far as the resemblance goes. In some ways, I prefer Code Name Verity–I enjoyed the fiendishly plotted story, with its twists and turns, and I felt the characters were better played out. But, that being said, Rose Under Fire is still an excellent book, and it deserves respect in a very different way to Code Name Verity.
I have read descriptions of concentration camps before. I have visited Sachsenhausen, a work camp located just north of Berlin, and Buchenwald. I would not attempt to write a historical fiction work about them in my lifetime. The experiences of the survivors are so raw, so heartbreaking, that I don’t think I could be able to do any sort of justice to what they went through. But Elizabeth Wein does, I think. She has researched her subject well enough that she pays homage to the survivor’s descriptions, while also making it uniquely her own (after all, I don’t think it would really be a novel by her unless there was something about planes in there). So in that regard, I bow to her.
That being said, let’s get back to the plot and the characters. Code Name Verity was heart-pounding, because you didn’t know what was going to happen–whether Verity would get out, what had happened to Maddie, etc. The plot was amazing, so many layers of stories and secrets. I had hoped this one would have something of the same, but I also don’t think I would have made it through the reading if it had. At the beginning of Rose’s reminiscences you are told quite succinctly that she and her friends Irina and Roza have made it out of Ravensbruck. The story then goes through their experiences and their eventual escape. But it is still heart-pounding, because in Ravensbruck Rose has many other acquaintances, and you have no idea what happens to them. I would have liked a book slightly less straightforward, but I think the stress would have actually been painful if it hadn’t been so direct.
And the characters. Code Name Verity has two characters in particular that jump out, Maddie and Verity. They seem so very, very real that it seems impossible that Wein made them up (again, see my review). But I didn’t become quite as attached to the characters in Rose Under Fire. Rose’s main characteristic, to me, was endurance. During the first part of the book you get the impression of a pleasant person, but not someone particularly interesting–she misses her family, she likes flying, she’s happy at her friend’s wedding, she’s excited to ferry her uncle, etc. And in Ravensbruck, it was not so much Rose’s character that held sway as the relationships formed between her and the others. It wasn’t even like in CNV, where Maddie and Verity balanced each other out, it was more the amazement at the bonds formed that was important in this book. Rose’s main duty seems to be remembering what happened and transcribing it, keeping it for others (although how good a job she does is questionable at the end). She endures, without any of the compassion of Maddie or inventiveness of Verity. Were it not for her friends I think she would have simply given up, lost herself in Ravensbruck.
This circles back to one of Wein’s enduring themes, the power of friendship, and Roza and Irina. Roza is an intriguing character that I only really started to enjoy towards the end of the book. She’s one of the Rabbits, the girls used as medical experiments, and this has left her legs horribly injured. More importantly to her character, she’s spent pretty much all of her formative years in concentration camps–since she was fourteen. She’s a harsh personality, almost fatalistic at times, with a morgue humor. She’s one of the ones that helps Rose to endure, encourages her poetry and all, but she’s also difficult to fully like. The only time when you really understand her is towards the end of the book, when she’s out of the camp and trying to find her way in the normal world. Irina, Rose’s other friend, was more intriguing to me. She’s a Soviet fighter pilot, a total badass, and when Rose is about to fall apart and Roza is going on a rant about how everyone’s going to die, Irina’s the one that bring a determined, badass kind of hope–or at least, a refusal to succumb and die. I wish we’d seen more of her, because I really enjoyed her character, but at the same time I understand why the spotlight was on Rose. Still, Irina faded out after fulfilling her purpose (planes), which irked me.
Despite the fact that they are companion novels, I don’t think any attempt should be made to compare (or at least, as little as possible, despite the fact that I do). There’s a mention at the end of this book, a comparison between Rose and Verity made by someone who knew them both, that Verity wouldn’t have survived the same experience Rose did. But I think that’s an unfair comparison–Verity’s strength was a very different sort of endurance, and Rose wouldn’t have been able to do what Verity did either. I think both of them are excellent books, describing very different experiences in the war. This one is worth reading, simply because it deals honestly and simply with a topic that is very difficult to deal with.
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Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.