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Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire
by Elizabeth Wein

Disney Hyperion, September 2013
Reviewed from an ARC

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?

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. But…..the poetry.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Huh. I read it in a very early form, and I did not find the poetry worked for me, but the formatting was such a mess (line breaks were broken, ec.) that I chalked it up to formatting as impediment. Interesting to hear that it doesn’t work for several readers. But is it maybe that Rose just isn’t that good of a poet?

      I found the most emotional parts of this for me were the parts that weren’t really this book at all — I sobbed early on when there’s the casual reference to Maddie’s best friend who died, choked up immensely and happily about Maddie and Jamie getting married (I KNEW it!), and completely lost it when I realized who the Kommandant (did I get the term right? Book is nowhere available) is Anna Engels. But all of that emotion was about CNV, a book I loved and read a lot and whose characters feel so relentlessly real to me that it was a powerful experience running into them again. So little of my response was specific to Rose’s story (I’m overstating it for the sake of the argument, in all honesty — I quite admire this book, but not with that intense passion) — it makes me wonder if this is a fundamentally different book for the reader who loved Verity v the reader who didn’t (cough cough, Sarah).

      • Well, I loved both, though in different ways. And I cried at all the same things you did, Karyn (damask roses, MY HEART, WHY), but also for Elodie and Karolina, and for the moment when Roza and Rose and Irina fly over Ravensbrueck, all times she calls on Millay’s poetry to keep herself alive. Anyway, for me I did have that reaction of feeling that the characters were real, and caring about them a lot, especially (as fits the story) Rose and Roza and Irina. I think for my personal reaction–i.e., nothing to do with the Printz itself–there’s also the fact that I love Julie and Maddie, but I’m not very much like either of them, whereas Rose? Oh, yes.

        As far as Rose’s own poetry goes, her early poetry is definitely clumsy and over-earnest; it’s the poetry of someone who loves writing but who doesn’t have experience to draw on. The first few made me go, “Oh…dear.” But in the poems she writes during and after Ravensbrueck, I saw a shift, and some of her later poems–“Kite-Flying” and “The Subtle Briar” in particular–resonated with me as poetry as well as having a place in the story. So I suppose I read her as a young poet, who writes some bad poems, and some okay poems, and a few that reach deeper.

  2. Indeed, the poetry is atrocious.

    I’m not at all prepared to say that RUF is better than CNV. Despite my well-documented qualms with CNV, I felt that it was a first-rate piece of art, just a bit too marred for me to support a medal. RUF, on the other hand, feels decidedly average. I agree wholeheartedly that the first section is far too long, but then, the whole book is too long.

    And I’ll throw something out which is bound to be contentious, and which I can’t back up with evidence because it’s been too long since I read it. But I hope maybe others felt the same way: I just had this nagging reaction that the contention to the Holocaust and the camps was somehow . . . unearned? I don’t know how to describe it, exactly – just, it never connected with me the way so many of the great Holocaust novels have, perhaps because of that overly long first section.

    • “I just had this nagging reaction that the contention to the Holocaust and the camps was somehow . . . unearned?”

      Mark, would you mind teasing that out a little more? I’m not sure I’m following and I want to make sure I understand what you’re actually saying.

      • Hi Maureen – I’d love to tease it out more . . . but I’m finding it hard to explain, myself. I think I agree with much of what Kristin says below, so perhaps it was the “emotional blackmail” – I would probably not put it that strongly as to my own reading, but I definitely felt like the Ravensbruck stuff was trying to make a *statement* rather than coming organically from the plot. I apologize for not being more concrete about this objection – I really don’t have time to go back and reread this one.

      • Actually, even that helps a lot–I was just struggling to understand what that sentence was referring to. Thanks!

  3. I didn’t like this book very much. I should say more accurately that I found some parts emotionally gripping, but on the whole I found the book fairly weak in terms of its construction, characterization and effectiveness as a narrative. I felt that while the accounts of Ravensbruck were brutal and harrowing, that they were too much. They went on and on and ultimately didn’t add to the narrative by the end. I felt like I was reading a history of Ravensbruck and not a novel. I also could never connect with Rose and found Maddie’s placement in the story unnecessary. Aside from Irina and the teenage girl who stayed with Rose through the remainder of the novel, I had trouble distinguishing between the characters. The beginning was boring, and the poetry was dreadful and also not needed.

    While Code Name Verity was “implausible,” I thought it was brilliantly constructed and that the characterization was excellent. I believed those girls loved each other. I didn’t believe the girls in Rose Under Fire were connected beyond their shared struggle. As far as the implausibility factor, I didn’t consider that to be an ultimate weakness. I thought it was a book about lying, to be quite frank. The author herself admits in the back of the book that such an event (a woman flying a combat mission over enemy territory) did not happen (and there is no evidence that it happened illegally, either, as it did in that novel), but it was a well-done story about relationships, and it was written well.

    Rose Under Fire wasn’t written well. The main character was Ravensbruck, and I don’t read novels so that the facilities where the main characters reside might become “animate” so to speak. I nearly vomited several times from reading this story it was so graphic in parts. Was that necessary to make the narrative resonate? To me that’s just emotional blackmail, because those were the only times the novel fully affected me, and I resented it. #disappointedreader

  4. Am I the only one who found this book *less* intense than expected? It seemed to me that a disproportionate number of the major characters survived, and there were more than a few moments when someone I thought would be killed got off with just a scare. I agree with all the good points mentioned above, and I found this a compelling read with its own brand of intensity via the Rabbits, but when so many important characters make it through, it renders the very real danger of the time and place a little unreal.

  5. >>…. wasn’t written well.

    No, no, no. You may dislike ROSE UNDER FIRE, but you cannot say it is poorly written. Your own comments about how it affected you contradict that statement. In fairness, take that back.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Nancy, I don’t think that’s entirely fair! Kristin is pretty convincing in her argument of emotional blackmail: she said had a visceral response to the facts of history being portrayed in detail, much as she might from watching a documentary, rather than from the writing as a whole. We can disagree, but I think she makes her case!

    • Nancy,
      I strongly disagree with this sentiment – it is entirely possible to have a strong emotional reaction to a piece of poorly made art – especially one about such a weighted topic as the Holocaust. I agree with Karyn than Kristin makes her point well: she feels (and I agree) that the book was poorly written with regard to the flat characterizations and the the creakiness of the construction. The fact that the scenes at Ravensbruck provoked a reaction from her do not make the novel “well written.”

  6. One of the things that kept going through my head as I read that most of the Holocaust literature I’ve read, as a child and since, was written by people who were there. (I got a strong flash of Charlotte Delbo’s None of Us Will Return, for instance, which Wein probably consulted, since Delbo was at Ravensbruck.) So I was comparing Rose under Fire to those books, while being aware that this is somewhat unfair. Nevertheless I was really won over by the Ravensbruck section — as a work of fiction, it’s very good, almost as good as some of the memoirs. I did not much like Part 1, too much golly gee-whiz, though I understand it’s purpose as a contrast to what comes afterwards.
    I don’t think it’s as good as Code Name Verity — maybe it’s a little less focused — but I also think this year is fairly weak in contenders — no real standouts or dominant books — so it gets my vote.

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