The Plot: It’s summer of 1944 and Rose Moyer Justice is in England, a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary.
She’s a pilot, and she’s an American, and she’s only 18, but she’s in the ATA because she’s been flying since she was 12 and her Uncle Roger, “high up in the Royal Engineers,” helped get her a place.
Rose thinks she’s seen the horrors of war. Her friend Celia Forester’s plan crashed, and she grieves. Her other friend Maddy has a war time wedding. Then there are the bombings and the destruction and the fear.
Thanks to Uncle Roger, Rose is flying in France, ferrying a plane back to England. That is when Rose is forced down by the Luftwaffe, captured by the Nazis, and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.
Rose is about to discover what real horror is.
The Good: First things first: you don’t have to have read Code Name Verity to read Rose Under Fire. Rose’s friend Maddy is the Maddy from Code Name Verity, and a couple of other people appear, but in terms of plot, there is no connection. Since Rose Under Fire takes place after Code Name Verity, readers will be happy to see Maddy and find out how she’s doing, but the non-Code Name Verity reader won’t be confused.
Rose Under Fire is primarily told by Rose herself. First, in some journal entries from the summer of 1944. Then, there is a handful of correspondence from others that show that Rose is missing, presumed dead. Next, entries beginning in April 1945, with Rose in Paris, having escaped Ravensbruck. The jacket copy tells that Rose is sent to Ravensbruck – no spoiler there – and Rose Under Fire shows how Rose ended up in the concentration camp, what happened to her there, how she survived — and what she does to put her life together after.
Rose is eighteen, young, and prisoned in a place where she doesn’t even really know the language. She heard rumors about Nazi atrocities and dismissed them as propaganda. And, as she puts it, “I hadn’t seen evil. Or, if I had, I didn’t recognize it.” Another thing to know about Rose, in addition to being young, and an American. She gets angry. “I wasn’t upset. I was angry, as mad as I was about everything else.” She also loves poetry and writes some herself. Probably, the last important thing to know about Rose and how she survives: she’s lucky.
Rose is lucky, because she makes friends and connections that will help her survive. First is Elodie, a member of the French Resistance. Later, after Rose is brutally beaten, the “Rabbits” — the Polish women subjected to Nazi “medical” experimentation — befriend her. The reason? To learn English. To learn the poetry she recites. One, Roza, is even younger than Rose. Then there is Irina, a pilot in the Soviet Army, who gets paired up with Rose during a work detail because both are tall.
The Rabbits. I had been aware, in a vague words on paper way, of the Nazi medical experiments. When Rose gets to Ravensbruck, the experiments are over and scarred, mutilated women remain. They live, because in an odd way the current commander is afraid to kill them. It is after D-Day, and while the war in Europe is bloody and not yet over there is a vague fear that they may lose and will have to answer for their crimes. I say vague, because brutality and killings do continue.
Elodie, Roza, Irina. It is because of them that Rose lives. Rose doesn’t just take: no, she also gives, and there are people who live because of Rose’s own actions. When I talk about the friendships; or how other prisoners also tried to help the Rabbits, because of just how badly they were treated; I don’t want to make it sound the wrong way. Like it’s all selflessness and jolly good comradery. No. There is also harshness and cruelty, blood and death, mud and hunger, fear and desperation. For Rose and the others there are two types of survival: physical survival and mental survival. What does it mean, to be in a place like Ravensbruck?
What does it mean, to survive Ravensbruck? To live, after?
I don’t want to give too much away, because while this doesn’t have the type of twists and turns like Code Name Verity, I think that certain plot points are best discovered by the reader than told in a review.
I will say this: Rose Under Fire is as much about the time after Rose’s imprisonment as it is about the imprisonment itself. The final third of the story takes place in 1946 and is called Nuremberg.
Is this a Favorite Book Read in 2013? Yes! Because of how the story is told: Rose, safe in Paris, telling what happened to her. Rose, trying to figure out what “safe” is. Because of Rose. And Roza. And Irina. And the other women in Ravensbruck. And because while it didn’t break my heart in the way that Code Name Verity did, Rose under Fire was just as heartbreaking in its own way.
A brief P.S.: remember my post in January about characters in books getting their periods? Well, yes, Rose has to figure out what to do when in a concentration camp.