Last year, we had a lot of great conversation about Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, which ended up with a silver medal. This year, we have its companion title, Rose Under Fire. With two starred reviews, will this title go the distance? I’m not so sure; I’ve gone through at least three different stages of thinking about this book. I think I’ve settled on “not likely.”
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to enjoy here: The writing is beautiful, and the decision to keep first person diary style benefits this story. It allows for immediate, emotional connection with Rose, and also provides an opportunity to track the changes Rose undergoes through the course of the story. Her change in voice from part one to part two is abrupt and effective; you’re warily drawn in, trying to understand what changes have happened. And the polished writing of the third section gives the book a gorgeous, formal (but still emotional and effective) ending.
The decision to write about Ravensbruck and the Rabbits makes this book outstanding, too. While there are many different takes on the Holocaust, the story here is not often covered in fiction. Wein’s strong characterization helps, too; this is a large cast, but they are memorable and distinct individuals.
Including the war crime trials in Hamburg was awesome too. It allows the people in the camp a measure of agency, and it adds to the many-layered themes relating to storytelling found throughout the book. The agony of — and necessity of — telling this story can bring closure. Conversely, it shows the complexity and ambiguity of searching for justice, the importance of telling the story, the responsibility and burden to bear witness.
There are some flaws, too. The book is divided into three parts: Rose’s ATA service, her time at Ravensbruck, and Rose’s memoir-essay of her time at the trials. The first part feels overly long in retrospect — too much set up, almost too detailed an account of just how a very young American female pilot found herself in a death camp. Additionally, Rose’s friendship with Maddie seems extraneous – tacked on and false – until the end when it dovetails (ha!) so nicely with the flight metaphors in the memoir section.
So, on balance, I was ready to say: good but not good enough. And then I went back to look at the very beginning of the story. Did you guys notice that the V-1’s, the doodlebugs, are mentioned right at the start? That the very first incident that Rose is writing up has to do with the V-1’s? And that a major thread from the book has to do with the ultra-mechanized, dehumanizing aspects of Nazi Germany’s methods of warfare and approach to the final solution? Guys! Guys, this is a book about drone warfare! And – you’ll have to bear with me here, since this blog post is going to go well beyond the parameters of legit Printz discussion, but I guess that’s the luxury of a blog, and oh dear, I’ve lost control of this sentence grrrr STARTING OVER NOW:
If you look at Rose Under Fire as compared to CNV (which would never happen at the Printz table, but makes for interesting thoughts to me), Rose is a far more effective commentary on current events/our international actions. Instead of hiding the realities of torture under a layer of stiff-upper-lip, understated British bad-assery (which really only made me think of Julie as an unbelievable character, not effectively, deliciously, untrustworthy, which is how I prefer my unreliable narrators, thankyouverymuch), Rose forces us to experience, along with Rose, the effects of mechanized warfare and the horrible realities of industrialized genocide. The commentary here is so much richer, so much more effective and heart wrenching, that I suddenly found myself hoping that Rose will take a medal despite not being so startlingly ambitious (at least, ambitious from a narrative perspective). The straight-forwardness of the narrative allows Rose to talk about what we are doing now, today, to people more completely and more effectively. Or maybe I should say, I felt that this book connected more with me (not “people” generally) and thus is more successful. And that’s when it bumped back up into contender status.
So I think that Rose is a more successful book on the whole than Code Name Verity. Although there are fewer reveals and surprises, although Rose is less flashy, it’s a stronger work overall. But…less ambitious/more believable might be better artistically — or it might not. It depends on the competition that year, the people at the table, and a hundred other factors. It’s hard to say. To sum up this mess of a blog post: I think Rose is a better work than CNV, but not bold enough to take a medal. But what do you guys think?