Review of Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Rose Under Fire
by Elizabeth Wein
“I am healing. I have scars that show and scars that don’t.”
The tagline for Rose Under Fire is “I will tell the world”, and it is so appropriate. This book is about many things. It’s about women in World War II; it’s about the beauty and freedom of flying planes; it’s about the lengths to which people go to survive, or to help others survive, and the paradox of our immense capacities for both empathy and cruelty. Above all else, though, I think this book is about the importance of hearing, believing, and remembering.
I suppose comparing this book to Code Name Verity is inevitable and expected. In both books, Elizabeth Wein tells the story of women who end up behind enemy lines in World War II. They are “companion” novels in the sense that they take place in the same continuity; this is a loose sequel to Code Name Verity that references some of the events from the previous book and includes Maddie. You don’t need to read Code Name Verity to appreciate Rose Under Fire, but you should read it for its own merits, and there are spoilers for it in this book.
Getting into the game of “which is the better book” feels kind of cheap, because they are both amazing. I want people to read both! Arguably, Code Name Verity is superior from a narrative perspective; Wein just does some very interesting things with frame stories and unreliable narration that she doesn’t replicate in this book. While both feature women captured by the Nazis, their individual experiences and the stories that Wein tells are quite distinct. Julie’s story is about the terror of what is going to happen to her, the knowledge that no matter what story she tells them, there will be no Arabian Nights–esque reprieve. Rose’s story is about trying to put the horrors of the past behind her; after her capture, her diary picks back up and lets us know she made it out alive before she begins to tell us everything that happened. We have that security—and we need it, considering the horrors that Rose describes.
Wein acknowledges in the afterword that Rose’s experience is limited to a very narrow slice of life in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. That’s understandable. And what an interesting, important slice of experiences these are anyway: so much of our fiction around World War II focuses on the battles (hence the men); fiction about concentration camps often focuses on Jewish people. Don’t get me wrong: these perspectives are so, so important and we should read and learn about them. But we also need to hear about the women’s concentration camps. And before reading these two books, I had no idea that there were women pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary responsible for ferrying planes around! Once again it turns out that systemic bias in history and our education system has worked to erase the fact that women have always been there, making vital contributions in every field of human endeavour imaginable.
So Rose ends up in Ravensbrück (this isn’t a spoiler; it’s in the cover copy). She herself experiences all the “typical” forms of abuse and torture—malnutrition, forced labour, whipping, insufficient attire, etc. She also ends up in the same barracks as the surviving Rabbits, Polish women on whom Nazi doctors performed incredibly unethical and painful experimental surgeries in the guise of “learning how to treat battle wounds”. Rose talks to them, becomes friends and comrades with them, particularly with her namesake, Róża. And so begins her mantra: I will tell the world.
Because in this book, Wein reminds me of something that was different back then compared to how we view Nazi atrocities today. Nowadays, deniers aside, we take the atrocities of the Holocaust for granted. We don’t always know the details (i.e., the Rabbits) but we believe these things happened. Hindsight makes us forget that this wasn’t always the case. Before Rose ends up in Ravensbrück, she herself is skeptical:
It was compelling stuff—you couldn’t stop listening—but it was so absolutely awful that I couldn’t believe it, and I said so.
“That’s got to be propaganda!” I burst out. “You English are as bad as the Germans!”
“You should read the Guardian,” Maddie said. “It’s not all propaganda. The reports from the concentration camps are pure evil.”
“Poisoning girls with gangrene?” I objected. “It’s like trying to get us to believe the Germans eat babies!”
Later, of course, Rose finds out how accurate this “propaganda” is firsthand—and she experiences the other side of the coin when her mother talks about not believing “those Jewish women who said they’d been—”. One can understand why these reports are hard to believe; as Rose herself says above, it’s just so awful one doesn’t want to think anyone is capable of such acts. And here we are, 70 years on, so secure in our knowledge of what happened it’s easy to forget anyone ever doubted. But in a time when film was still rare and radio and telegraph were the go-to communication methods, it was harder to communicate the true scope of what was happening.
It’s tempting to say that things are different now, in this age when everyone has cameras on their person and can livestream something happening all around the world at the push of a button. But it isn’t different, really. Being more connected has not made people any more interested in hearing about kidnapped Nigerian school girls or Syrian refugee camps—we tune into the 24-hour news cycle and then tune right back out. We “heard something about that” on Twitter or Facebook but don’t hear the whole story. And there are plenty of people denying the true extent of conditions in Syria or even here in Canada, on First Nations reserves—one wonders how history is going to look back on that. (Even now so many people are ignorant of or deny the experience of survivors of residential schools. I can’t begin to tell you how many times someone has insisted to me that “the British” were responsible for colonialist policies towards Indigenous peoples, and that “Canada” put a stop to all that.)
This is the point Wein tries to make: stories are everything. Listening to the stories of survivors, whether they are of the Holocaust or concentration camps or residential schools or refugees of war, is so essential, and believing them, even more so.
I also love how Wein doesn’t make Rose overly strong or stoic. The moments where Rose is confiding in her diary about her experience after the camp, about her recovery in the room at the Ritz, are some of the most powerful, even though she is at her safest. Her inability, at first, to leave the room; her reluctance to engage with the crowds of Paris, underscore the lasting trauma of her imprisonment. Even afterwards, when she is living in Scotland, she talks to us about how she isn’t strong enough to testify at some of the war crimes trials. When we tell stories about survivors, we often like to sprinkle in adjectives like “brave”, without really wanting to engage with what those descriptors mean. In doing so, we ignore and erase the feelings of the survivors themselves. Rose does some incredible things, especially during that escape sequence. Regardless of whether we think she is brave, however, she doesn’t think that. And her feelings are more important; it is more important we understand how this experience has, as she puts it, influenced her.
All in all, Wein’s portrayal is just so incredibly nuanced:
It is true that Ravensbrück shaped me—whatever I would have been without it interfering, I am someone else now. On the simplest level, I don’t think I would be in Scotland or in medicine. But Ravensbrück doesn’t define me.
Rose here is contrasting her experience with Róża’s, for the younger Polish girl lost her entire family in the war and adopted the camp prisoners are her new family. Hence, her identity is so inextricably bound to the Ravensbrück experience that she is struggling much more to reconstruct herself now that she is free.
Moreover, Wein underscores just how much World War II altered the trajectory of an entire generation—and not just an entire generation in a single country, but in almost all of the world. I am lucky enough to have grown up in an era where I would not be expected to go fight in a war. For the people Rose’s age, that simply wasn’t an option. Even those who weren’t fighting were involved in the war effort in one way or another, and even when the war was over, your life was different from what it was before. From the hasty marriages to Rose’s ruminations on the contrast between her life in Pennsylvania and her life in England and Ravensbrück, this book illustrates how different it was to come of age during World War II.
So Rose Under Fire is not an easy book, nor should it be. But its beautiful in that haunting sort of way. Wein refuses to sugarcoat or elide details despite this being a young adult novel (nor should she). This is a tonic to the myths we encounter, about the war or about the fragility of adolescents or about the one-dimensionality of survivors and their stories. There is so much happening here.
It’s been too long since I read Code Name Verity; I should probably pick it up again. I’m very happy I finally got around to reading Rose Under Fire, and I really recommend both books, not just to young adults but to readers of any age. This is one of those stories that is too important to let pass by: we need to tell the world.