Rose Under Fire
ROSE UNDER FIRE is Elizabeth Wein's companion to CODE NAME VERITY, and readers will once again be absorbed by her compelling take on historical fiction.
Elizabeth Wein's novel, CODE NAME VERITY, was something of a sensation when it was published in 2012. It received many starred reviews, showed up on numerous end-of-the-year "best of 2012" lists, and most importantly, seemed to connect with readers on numerous levels. The novel, about the fate of two best friends who become separated when they crash land a plane during a transport mission in World War II, contained plenty of suspense, historical detail, narrative complexity and emotional depth --- not to mention a plot twist that almost no one saw coming.
"Although ROSE UNDER FIRE lacks the kind of Usual Suspects plot twist of Wein's earlier novel, it's utterly riveting in its own way."
Now, Wein follows up CODE NAME VERITY with another novel, set slightly later during the war and featuring appearances by some of the same characters. ROSE UNDER FIRE, though, focuses primarily on a new character --- American pilot Rose Justice --- meaning that readers can understand and enjoy this new novel whether or not they've read its companion book.
Rose, like the characters in CODE NAME VERITY, is a transport pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian unit in which pilots --- many of them women --- transported new, damaged and repaired airplanes where they were most needed in the UK. These pilots also occasionally ferried service personnel to new locations. As in CODE NAME VERITY, Wein thoroughly explains this kind of work and the women who were drawn to serve in its ranks. Rose, whose fighter pilot father taught her to fly at the age of 12, is, like many of her colleagues, in the ATA because it's the only place where a skilled female pilot like herself can serve legally.
Rose is both fascinated and terrified by the "flying bombs" (also known as buzz bombs or doodlebugs) that the Germans deployed during the war. She learns from another pilot about the concept of taran --- arial ramming --- in which an adept pilot can effectively send one of these flying bombs off course, away from its intended pilot. On the way back from her first mission to a newly-liberated Paris, Rose has the opportunity to do just that --- but the consequences are dire indeed.
Rose, who earns the admiration of the German pilots who capture her, is nevertheless sent to a women's concentration camp, Ravensbrück, where, for the next several months, she observes and is subjected to horrors beyond anything she could have imagined (and had, in fact, dismissed as propaganda just weeks earlier). Rose's stories of life in the camp are unflinching in their portrayal of brutality, abuse and desperation. The Germans, aware that the war has turned against them, grow increasingly eager to destroy evidence of their crimes, resulting in increased danger for Rose and her friends, who are mostly political prisoners from France, Russia and Poland.
At the center of Rose's story are the so-called Rabbits, women who were subjected to the worst kinds of torture under the guise of medical experimentation. Crippled and in constant pain, these women's bravery inspires Rose and her fellow inmates --- and leads them all to acts of bravery even greater than those of the fighter pilots of Rose's dreams.
Throughout her ordeal, Rose uses poetry --- her own and others' (especially Edna St. Vincent Millay's) --- to find strength, beauty and comfort even under the worst possible circumstances. Readers will be inspired by the role of art in survival even as they are shocked by the atrocities Rose's narrative describes. Although ROSE UNDER FIRE lacks the kind of Usual Suspects plot twist of Wein's earlier novel, it's utterly riveting in its own way. Even readers who have read about German concentration camps in school or elsewhere will be stunned by what they read here --- and the emotional connection that Wein establishes with readers will inspire them to, as Rose pledges to do, tell the world the story of these courageous women.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 24, 2013