Rose Under Fire is the second novel in the Young Pilots series by Elizabeth Wein, whose previous Y/A historical fiction novel, Code Name Verity, won several awards in North America and the U.K. Set during and after World War II, the scope of Rose Under Fire feels vast because it covers the years in which Rose, the main character, grows from a spirited but sheltered young woman to one who has both endured and witnessed unimaginable cruelty. She is forever changed by her experiences, but at her core she bravely remains committed to protecting the truth. By the end of the novel I had forgiven Wein for bestowing a cheesy last name on her protagonist—Rose Justice—because it is such a powerful theme in the novel.
Rose’s courage is apparent right from the start. As an American, she was a volunteer who chose to put herself in the path of danger by going to England to help with the war effort. As a woman, she stands out for her unusual role: she works as a pilot in the ATA (the British Air Transport Auxiliary), ferrying combat-ready planes to airfields in southern England. The description if Rose’s occupation is vivid, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that Wein is a pilot as well as being an accomplished writer.
The novel is divided into three parts. The first part is set in England in August 1944, and establishes the war experience for Rose so far as being a bit tame. I admit that although the historical details were interesting, I found myself wishing for a little more action at the start of the novel. Rose’s relationship with Nick, her English beau, seems deliberately under-developed, as though Wein doesn’t want us—or Rose—to get very attached to him. Wein is lulling her reader into a false sense of security, so that what happens to Rose has an even greater impact.
Rose is excited to be given a mission to fly to France, but things go horribly wrong during her solo return flight. The scene in which she is captured is taut and terrifying. Rose, flying a Spitfire, is overtaken by two Luftwaffe aircraft. Though she tries desperately to shake them, she ultimately has no choice but to follow the enemy pilots. Rose is forced to land in Germany, and in short order is sent to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp. Wein herself stayed at the camp when researching the novel (since it is now a memorial and, astonishingly, a youth hostel) and does a compelling job of re-creating its dark, brutal world. Here, Rose is thrown in with a group of women of different backgrounds, nationalities, and ages; all that they have in common is that they have been caught in the Nazi net and are stuck together in Ravensbruck. The fast friendships and shifting allegiances among the women make for fascinating reading as they struggle to stay alive.
Some of the women, including Rose’s fierce young friend Roza, are known as “Rabbits”. I feel ashamed that before reading Rose Under Fire, I had never heard of the rabbits of Ravensbruck. Most of these women were Polish prisoners. They were called “rabbits” because they were the unwilling subjects of bizarre and inhumane medical experiments, like having pieces of bone removed from their legs, and having the wounds sealed up after foreign objects or bacteria were implanted inside. In Rose Under Fire, the other prisoners memorize the Rabbits’ names, so that in the chance of their escaping from or surviving Ravensbruck, they can “TELL THE WORLD” about the Rabbits and what happened to them. Rose in particular takes this responsibility so seriously that it motivates her to persevere, even in the face of shocking cruelty and conditions that seem impossible to survive.
The other motivating factor for Rose during this dark time is poetry. Even before her imprisonment, poetry helped her express her anger over the war. Her verses are woven through the novel, and sometimes the same poems reappear, like the choruses of bittersweet songs. She is inspired by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and in turn her group of Ravensbruck friends are inspired by her. Much of her poetry, like the stories she tells her friends, highlights the contrast between Rose’s idyllic adolescence in rural Pennsylvania and the brutal environment of the concentration camp. I confess that often when novelists include poems written by characters, I am tempted to skim over them, but when reading Rose Under Fire, my eye caught some masterful lines, and then I was hooked. What seems to be a straightforward historical novel at first becomes a more and more layered, complex work, with a fractured chronology, letters, and journal entries adding nuance and depth. Reading this novel, it is impossible not to become engaged with Rose’s character. I felt genuine desperation for Rose and her friends, knowing that the end of the war was near, and yet feeling certain that they wouldn’t all have the strength to survive until the Allies arrived.
Part 3 of the book is devoted to the Nuremberg Trials, in particular the trials of the Nazi doctors who performed the hideous experiments at Ravensbruck. Although it will likely seem less compelling to some readers than the parts that take place during the war, I applaud Wein for including this section. Rose is torn between wanting to forget her experiences at Ravensbruck, and knowing she is morally bound to provide a voice for the many women (estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000) who did not survive to speak the truth about what happened to them. Rose’s story isn’t done when the war ends and she is no longer a prisoner; the final chapters show how she once again digs deep to find courage, this time to go to Nuremberg as both a witness to the atrocities and as a journalist who can report the truth. My hope is that many student readers will be moved by this story—as I was—and do a bit of research into how it played out in real life.
Rose Under Fire is a compelling, solidly-researched work (and it will help support my personal crusade that “war stories aren’t just FOR guys and aren’t just ABOUT guys”!). Once my daughters are old enough, I will be handing them a copy of Rose Under Fire. I want them to learn about the Rabbits of Ravensbruck, and about the courage of women who survived such cruelty and then mustered the strength to ensure that some of those responsible were brought to justice.