My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Elizabeth Wein has hit the jackpot writing kickass female characters in terrible wartime circumstances, and after reading “Rose Under Fire,” I’m sure not going to complain. A sort of companion novel to “Code Name Verity,” in that a few of the characters share screen time, “Rose Under Fire” features Rose Justice, an American transfer pilot who ends up interred at Ravensbruck concentration camp.
One of the tactics Wein uses to great effect is the same epistolary format as “Verity,” which allows readers to learn about the events of the story after they’ve already unfolded. That said, the opening and closing sections are told in real time and recounted as they happen, but don’t comprise the meat of the story.
That distinction belongs to the middle section, where we see Rose and her fellow prisoners turned allies struggling to survive in the dangerous, depleted women’s branch of Ravensbruck in the final stages of the war. The character personalities and interactions here were what made the story for me. I loved the variety of women presented on the page here. Old, young, formerly rich, formerly poor, some with families they worried about, some whose only family consisted of fellow prisoners. Stubborn and sacrificial and loyal and endlessly creative.
One of the things I loved about each and every one of the named women was their almost easy bravery in a situation that was the opposite of easy. They never hesitated to step in and help each other, to hide fellow prisoners or move people throughout the camp in order to keep them alive a few more days. They took endless risks for each other and bolstered each other’s spirits in silly, familiar, universal ways.
Even though the body count wasn’t as high as other concentration camp novels I’ve read, the characters are so REAL that every loss tears at you. Close as V-day was then, it wasn’t quite close enough for all of them. The poetry included throughout only hammers the inevitability of mortality home. Some of it written by Rose, some quoted from modern (at the time) poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, all of it a heartbreaking reflection on war and death and the people affected by both.
One of the other unique qualities of ‘Rose’ was its thorough discussion of the medical experimentation that so many prisoners were subjected to. It’s an excellent marker of how well-researched a novel is when some of the details casually included within the context of other scenes turn your stomach.
I even appreciated the leap ahead to the Nuremberg trials and the participation of many characters that made up the final part of the novel. Nuremberg is taught so widely in history classes but so often over-looked, that discussing the impact of the trials felt like a fitting tie-in to a story whose theme was “tell the world.”
I actually liked “Rose Under Fire” more than “Code Name Verity.” Don’t get me wrong, both are fantastic additions to the World War II genre–which hadn’t found much of a purchase within the YA readership until recently. There aren’t any marked differences between them that account for my preference. For me, the line between good historical fiction and great historical fiction lies in where the story resonates and the magnitude to which it does.
And “Rose Under Fire” is great historical fiction. Definitely give this one a look.