Friday, 13 September 2013

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein is the first book I've read of the author's. I picked it up because I'd heard so many good things about Code Name Verity, another novel set in World War II also about a female pilot.
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?
I have a tendency not to read blurbs in the gap between deciding to read a book and then (often months later) actually reading it. So I have to admit, I was a bit surprised when Rose disappeared and ended up in Ravensbrück. For some reason I had been expecting this to be more of a war story and less of a concentration camp story. Which is to say, I thought it would be a cheerier read when I picked it up. It wasn't.

The story is told through the medium of Rose's diary, begun while she was a civilian pilot, ferrying planes and people around the UK (mostly). When Rose accidentally leaves her diary behind on a run to France and then is captured by the Luftwaffe when she gets lost going home, there is a long gap with some letters about her, and then she resumes writing after she's free and safe. It is done to great effect. That we know Rose survives because she's there telling us about it does nothing to alleviate the horrors she has to endure in Ravensbrück.

Rose Under Fire is marketed as a YA book, presumably because Rose is 18 when it begins. That definitely doesn't mean it pulls any punches when dealing with events at Ravensbrück. I suspect teens learning about some of these events for the first time through this novel would benefit from having an adult to discuss some aspects with. That said, it is of course important that everyone is aware of the sorts of things that happened during World War II and that society does not forget. Indeed one of the central themes of the book is that the world must know what happened; a lot of brain energy among the prisoners we see is devoted to memorising the list of names of the Polish girls used in medical experiments at Ravensbrück.

I have to admit, I think this might be the first book I've read which has dealt with the immediate aftermath of the war (as opposed to jumping forward to many years later). The Nazi trials in Nuremberg and elsewhere feature in the denouement, taking place while Rose is still very much on her long journey of recovery. Of course I knew about the trials in the abstract sense, but hadn't thought of them from the perspective of survivors having to give testimony. Wein certainly changed that.

Rose Under Fire was an excellent read. Some parts were quite confronting (even though none of the events were particularly new to me). Wein's writing is incredibly compelling and this book kept me up two nights in a row. I had difficulty putting it down, and then difficulty not thinking about it, to the point where I had to read something else to send me to sleep. I highly recommend it to all readers.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013 (US edition September from Disney-Hyperion and Canadian edition from Doubleday (with the prettiest cover, in my opinion), UK/ANZ edition June from Egmont)
Series: Sort of. A stand-alone companion novel to Code Name Verity
Format read: eARC, US edition
Source: Disney-Hyperion via NetGalley

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