Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Eighteen-year-old Rose Justice has been flying planes since she was twelve. Flying was her life back in Pennsylvania, though she was also a high school student, a Girl Scout, a poet, and a typical American teenager growing up during World War II. Upon graduation, Rose knows she only wants to do one thing: fly. She gets a job with the British Air Transport Auxiliary, transporting planes to the western front of the war in Europe. She dreams of flying as a fighter pilot and getting more involved in the War, but she can’t because she’s a girl.
One day in 1944, while flying over Paris, Rose is captured by the Nazis and taken across enemy lines. Rose ends up in Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp in northern Germany. There she experiences all the horrors she’d heard about but not believed. She also discovers new horrors she never could have imagined. She meets the rabbits, Polish women subjected to cruel medical experiments, and finds strength and hope in the darkest of places. Rose isn’t sure if she can save the others, or herself, but she does have one goal driving her every action: tell the world.
The story is told in three distinct parts, all from Rose’s journal entries during the war. The first are her entries from England telling of her life as an ATA pilot. The second picks up when she has returned from Germany, explaining how she escaped the camp and wants to write her story down. The third covers Rose’s journey after the war, healing and attending the trials of the camp guards. Rose’s journal entries look at her life before, during, and after her imprisonment in the concentration camp.
Rose Under Fire is essentially the story of an American girl forced into a German concentration camp, which is both intriguing and controversial. Some readers have complained that adding an American voice to a story about the Holocaust does little to focus on the voices of the European prisoners in the camps. They feel this reads like a false history.
However, I think Elizabeth Wein did a good job of making the situation realistic, which couldn’t have been easy to do, and keeping the focus on the story she is really telling here: the story of the Polish rabbits. Rose is only in the camp for six months – a fact she states early in the novel – and she becomes a symbol of communication and hope to the prisoners. She is not characterized as a savior figure, per se (though one might argue she is), but as a witness to the horrors and connection to the outside world.
I experienced Rose Under Fire as an audiobook, and found it to be one of the more gripping books I read this year. I am always fascinated by Holocaust fiction, but Rose felt like so much more. The pacing and characterization were the driving factors in keeping me listening in my driveway, not wanting to turn off my car and put the story away, but I think it was the final part of the book that will really stay with me.
Wein does not end the story with Rose’s escape, but instead chooses to show the aftermath of her experience. Life after six months in a concentration camp was hard. Rose is scarred by her experiences, but also struggles with how to confront the people who terrorized the other prisoners for so many years. Rose shows incredible strength and bravery in the camp and outside of it as she makes her way in the post-war world.
Elizabeth Wein is a rising star in the world of young adult historical fiction. She’s gathered critical acclaim for her Printz Honor-winning novel Code Name Verity. However, Rose Under Fire is just as strong a novel and is likely to be decorated with awards this January when the American Library Association announces their youth media awards, including the Michael L. Printz award. Look for this little gem to be a hot contender.
I’m considering Rose Under Fire to be a Printz contender, and my reviews this winter will cover other books that represent the best of 2013. Have you read Rose Under Fire or any of Wein’s other books? Share your thoughts in the comments!