Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein


Elizabeth Wein's 2012 novel, Code Name Verity, was one of the best books I have read in years.

Rose Under Fire isn't exactly a sequel to Code Name Verity, but it has a lot in common with the first book, including the writing style (letters and written reports), a couple of characters, and of course the general bleak World War II setting. Rose is an ATA pilot, responsible for delivering planes and military passengers across the UK and in newly-liberated France. When she is captured by the Nazis, she ends up in Ravensbrück, a women's concentration camp deep in Germany, and she must fight not only to survive herself but also to protect her new friends, the "rabbits," girls used for medical experiments that the failing Nazis are desperate to hide.

While Code Name Verity is a narrative and structural tour-de-force, Rose Under Fire is more conventional, and it lacks some of the raw emotion and drive of its predecessor. Rose cannot write an account while in the concentration camp, and so we begin her story knowing that she and some of her friends will survive. Yet Rose Under Fire is also painfully, almost unbearably real. The pain that characters undergo, their suffering, the horrors that they face... they are all based on fact, on situations that millions of people really endured. Rose Under Fire is less of a novel, in the conventional sense, and more of a fictionalized access point to this history. It brings the history alive, providing readers with the devastating understanding that all of this is true. Reading a good horror story might leave you cowering in bed with the light on, terrified of ghosts that you know can't possibly be real. Rose Under Fire will leave you up late with the light on, terrified of reality and what people are capable of.

Rose Under Fire is 100% a tale of women's history. It shows women's bravery, women's brutality, their heroism and their failures. All of the female characters in the novel are dynamic and flawed. Rose does many brave things, many moral things, but without the distance of deciding to be brave. She does the "right thing" because she is too paralyzed to do anything else. It is her gut, not her brain, that directs her actions. Her fellow prisoners are as cruel as they can be kind. They make impossible choices in order to survive, or to allow others to survive, and the result is a complicated mess of humanity and morality. A whole cast of women, all acting in their own unique, damaged, bold, selfless, selfish, desperate ways.

If you're looking for a story with realistic, powerful, moving female relationships, get this book. If you want a story that will punch you in the gut and leave you thinking for a long time after it's done, get this book. If you're expecting another Code Name Verity, you may be disappointed, but Rose Under Fire is overall an excellent piece of historical fiction, where real stories take precedence, and where women's bravery is front and center.