There are certain things a writer can focus on in their novel to ensure that I will at least give it a shot (if I know about the book), and in all likelihood, I will really dig it. One of them is using World War II as a backdrop. I find a lot of wars interesting but this one in particular fascinates me. The atrocities committed against humanity during this time period, and the willingness of so many people to just go along with them or at least be passive bystanders, is unfathomable. I think that’s why I will always devour even fictionalized accounts of WWII. Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire, the sequel to Code Name Verity, is no exception.
The gist is this: Rose Justice is a young American pilot, just graduated from high school, working for the British ATA transporting servicemen and whatever else she’s asked around the country. She has a handsome young man Nick for a boyfriend, several fellow pilots (including Maddie from Verity) with whom she is close, and nearby relatives (an aunt and uncle in London…with connections). It is these connections that got Rose her position in England and earned her the much-desired job of ferrying some VIP’s to PARIS!!! Unfortunately, the saying “Be careful what you wish for” turns true for Rose. In an attempt to down one of Germany’s un-manned bombers, Rose gets lost and ends up flying over Germany. She is spotted and forced to land. Due to some miscommunications she is sent along with a transport of Frenchwomen to Ravensbruck. Ostensibly this is a woman’s work camp but let’s call a spade a spade. It’s a concentration camp, and what Rose endures from September of 1945 to March of 1946 is an engrossing, heartbreaking, un-put-down-able tale of strength, endurance, and friendship.
I won’t go into too many more details on the plot. To do so I think would lessen the blow of some of the things Rose endures and to me that makes the novel less affective. I really liked this book despite the difficulty making it through some of the passages. The central theme Wein developed in Code Name Verity carries through here – strength and courage in female friendships. Rose meets many lovely women in her time at Ravensbruck, from a mischievous young French woman determined to undermine the Germans’ authority to a tiny pixie-like spitfire of a girl despite having been used as a test subject in some horrible medical “experiments.” Rose is easy to identify with; she’s not exceptional. She likes poetry and uses it to calm herself in some dire situations and to cheer up her fellow prisoners. She’s terrified of what might happen to her friends, of having to relive her experiences, and of what happens to her friends after she is separated. She retreats from reality with her poems or invented tales in order to avoid focusing on her situation. She feels awful when she makes decisions out of selfishness, though she isn’t really a selfish person. I liked her.
I will admit that I skimmed most of Rose’s poems, except her Edna St. Vincent Millay quotes. I love Millay’s poems, but generally I’m not big into poetry. That’s probably my only complaint about this book. I could have done with less poetry. I really do recommend this book, and you don’t really need to have read Code Name Verity to understand this one (though it will spoil that one if you read Rose’s story first).