Thursday 18 July 2013
#CBR5 Book 72. "Rose Under Fire" by Elizabeth Wein
Rating: 5 stars
This book is a companion novel to Elisabeth Wein's Code Name Verity. You don't need to have read that book to understand this one, but you should anyway, because it's one of the best books I've read in years. And you like good books, don't you?
Rose Justice is a young American woman, working for the ATA in Britain during World War II. She made friends among the other ATA pilots, she's dating a young soldier, and she writes poetry in her spare time. Her job is to taxi planes to various locations, and is on an out of the ordinary mission to France, when her plane is captured by the Germans, and she is sent to Ravensbrück, the women's concentration camp during the autumn of 1944. As very little news of the camps was actually released during the war, and what little came out was usually so horrifying that people didn't think it could be true, Rose has no idea what she's in for.
As she doesn't speak German, Rose has trouble communicating with the guards or other prisoners. As she was captured in France, she is labelled a French prisoner, even though she's American. Her clothes are taken from her, her hair is savagely shorn off her head. The treatment of the prisoners is dreadful. She's taken to work in the Siemens factory, where the prisoners get better food, and the barracks are not so crowded, but when she realises that the items she's set to make are missile components, she refuses to do any work. She's brutally beaten as punishment, and sent to a different part of the camp once she recovers enough to work. There she meets the group known as the rabbits, young women who've had horrifying and brutal medical experiments performed on them, and who have terrible scars and deformities because of it. Many of the prisoners are former students, and they love Rose's poetry. By reciting poetry she knows from her school days, or creating her own, Rose helps keep her own and the other women's spirits up.
I don't want to go into too much detail about what happens in the book, because anyone vaguely familiar with the sort of treatment prisoners of concentration camps received, will already have an idea, and anyone who doesn't know about these things, needs to read this book asap. To anyone worried, I can say that much of the book is Rose's journal entries AFTER she's back in Paris having escaped from the camp at the end of the war, so while the book is heartbreaking and serious and harrowing, I can reveal that Rose survives her terrible ordeal. Much of the story is her trying to actually process the things that happened to her. The first quarter or so of the book is her life in the UK before she's captured, and the last quarter is set later, during the Nüremberg trials, when Rose has to decide whether she is strong enough to face her tormentors and testify during the post-War tribunals about what she went through.
As was the case with Code Name Verity, this book has beautiful, touching and utterly believable depictions of female friendship. This is an even more difficult book to read, because while the former book was about two women during the war, one a pilot, the other a spy captured by the Gestapo, this book is about a group of women trying to survive against all odds in a German concentration camp. As Wein says in her afterword, while Rose Justice and several of the other women she writes about in the camp are fictional, everything she writes about the treatment of the prisoners, the unbelievable and sickening medical experiments performed on the rabbits, and the situation in Ravensbrück during the final months of the war is all true. She writes the book to educate, inform and pass on the knowledge. While it's one of the worst books I can imagine to read on a plane (as I foolishly did, literally choking back tears and trying desperately to not sob uncontrollably several times during the story), it's a wonderfully written book. It's an important book. It's without a doubt going to show up on my best of the year list.
Disclaimer! I was granted an ARC of this from the Disney Book Group through NetGalley. This has in no way influenced my review.The book is released in the US on September 10th. However, the book is already out in the UK, where I bought my own copy.