'Rose Under Fire' takes readers on brutal, lyrical, sad journey
One always wonders about new books from authors whose books have created a sensation. Will they be able to fulfill the promise, or was this a one-time amazement? Elizabeth Wein and Rainbow Rowell have each published a second book this year and all these books deliver!
Last year Elizabeth Wein won acclaim for “Code Name Verity” (Hyperion, ages 13 and up), a story about two World War II female pilots and best friends. Their dueted narrative broke hearts, created a book buzz and deservedly won a 2013 Printz Honor. Now, a year later, Wein brings out, “Rose Under Fire” (Hyperion, 13 and up), another WWII story. Rose Justice, the heroine, is an American from Pennsylvania who has entered the war delivering transport planes. It doesn’t take long for her to form an attachment to Maddie, the heroine of Wein’s first book, and acknowledge she’s “fed up with the shortages, never any butter and never enough sleep. … They’ve been with it for five years. All the time I’ve been swimming at the lake, playing girls’ varsity basketball and building a tree house for Karl and Kurt like a good big sister, crop dusting with daddy and helping Mother make applesauce, Maddie’s been delivering fighter planes.”
All the pilots are talking about “taran.” This Polish term is one of the many things Wein introduces by way of story, not exposition. Taran is the tricky maneuver of tipping the wing of pilotless Nazi bombs and. Pilots who do this risk spinning out of control, but Rose wishes she could try Taran, take on a more active and valiant role like this.
Little does she know that weeks later, she’ll be caught in France and sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. It’s there she finds a whole different kind of heroism when she refuses to make bombs and must stand for 12 hours straight, spends two weeks in “the Bunker” where she endures 25 lashes twice a day. She sustains herself by remembering, reciting and composing poems. This gift introduces her to “the Rabbits,” Polish girls who have become family to each other after falling victim of cruel Nazi medical experimentation. Roza, for example, has “a trio of sunken, dented scars in the front of her right leg, half an inch deep, where bone should have been. It looked like her legs had been split with a butcher knife and then she’d been shot at close range.” Rose, like others in the camp, is determined that the Rabbits survive the camp and the world learn of this inhumanity. The Rabbits, in turn, become Rose’s salvation, an ersatz family who warns her of dangers and with whom her invented stories and poems build a happier alternate reality.
The story is told largely during Rose’s difficult recovery in the Paris Ritz where despite being surrounded by luxury, she goes naked rather than wear the concentration camp clothes in which she’s escaped and is afraid to leave her hotel room. But when Rose picks up a pen, she finds respite in words and fulfills her promise to the Rabbits.
“Rose Under Fire” weaves historical fact with sensory-rich, gut-wrenching fiction that packs an emotional wallop and yet carries strains of hope. It’s another Wein book readers won’t be able put down. Her writing is honest and brutal, lyrical and sad. Just as Rose carries the Rabbits on flights of fancy, the writer takes readers on a literary adventure they will never forget.
Part of the success is based on the book’s complexity. Nothing is the black and white we would like to paint it. As she flies to Nuremburg, for example, at book’s end, Rose sees from the air that “we have heaped more destruction on the German cities than they have heaped on us,” that it is as if America’s “entire East Coast turned into a demolition site.”
And there are characters like Anna who barks orders as a bullying Kolonka (forewoman commander) at Ravenbruk, but has also shown Rose kindness. At book’s end she is a witness against the doctors at Nuremberg, but will be one of the accused at the Ravensbruk trial where she acted as the “Angel of Sleep” anesthetizing the Rabbits before their operations.
Even everyone’s pet, Roza, has her dark side. Thus Wein creates a world of terrifying believability where the situations and choices are never easy or clear and her characters do the best they can to survive and occasionally find moments where they become their best selves.
Rainbow Rowell’s second Young Adult novel is just as remarkable, so remarkable that it deserves its own review which it will receive in my next column.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.