________________ CM . . . . Volume XX Number 4. . . .September 27, 2013


Rose Under Fire.

Elizabeth Wein.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2013.
346 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
ISBN 978-0-385-67953-4.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



We called it “The Screamer”. The first time I heard it I thought there must be an air raid going on. I scrunched myself up in a ball with my arms over my head – of course, nothing happened. The next thing I heard, twenty minutes later, was the sound of hundreds of feet shuffling along at a weary jog and a lot of shouting and dogs barking. I felt my way to the doors to try again to find a crack, to see out.

Then someone opened the doors. I clapped my hands over my eyes and stood teetering on the edge of the truck floor, completely blinded by sunny September brilliance. They didn’t give me five seconds. I hadn’t even opened my eyes before someone grabbed my skirt and yanked me off balance, and I crashed full length onto the cindered road surface. The fall took the skin right off both my knees and off the heels of both hands, too. I rolled over and sat up, furious and stunned, rubbing my eyes with shaking, bloody hands. Within seconds, I was surrounded by half a dozen frantic German shepherds straining at the end of their leashes, all barking their heads off while half a dozen voices behind them barked equally vicious and completely incomprehensible orders over my head.

I just cowered.

Finally, since obviously I wasn’t going to obey an order I didn’t have a hope of understanding, someone grabbed me by the back of my collar and hauled me to my feet. I ended up being dragged to stand in the back of a long line of women who all looked as bewildered and stunned as I was. They seemed to be civilians, most of them carrying small bags and suitcases. There must have been nearly found hundred of us – all packed five to a row, and I was the last one in the last row.

You know how you look around a new place to see what it’s like? I didn’t do that right away, because my hands and knees were so sore. I bent down to look at my knees and cursed, “
Gosh darn it!” when I saw the humongous bloody holes in my stockings. “Gosh darn it, these are nylon!”

You know, it almost makes me laugh to write about it. What was the first thing you worried about when you found yourself a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, Rosie? Gosh darn it, holes in my nylon hose!

One of the guards yanked me upright again, by my hair this time, and that is when I lost my cap, because they would not let me pick it up. I never saw it again.

We stood there until it got dark.

I think it must have been six or seven hours. They weren’t punishing us that first day, I think they were just disorganized and there wasn’t any other place to put us yet. So we had to stand there, trying not to die of fear or boredom. But it was the first time. That made it harder.

This is what I thought about while I waited:

The walls. Twenty feet high and fenced with electric wire and skull-and-crossbones warning signs. There were a lot of empty trucks parked around us, but you could see the walls behind them. I still hadn’t figured out I was inside these walls – it was because I’d been locked blindly in the truck when I came through the gate. I kept looking at the walls and thinking, Gosh, I hope I don’t end up in there, whatever it is. Dreading that I probably would, and blissfully unaware that I already was.”


In the excerpt above, 18-year-old Rose Justice has just arrived at Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp for women. American by birth, Rose was working for Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary when she was captured en route back from a flight into Europe. She spends the next six months at Ravensbruck and becomes part of a group of women which includes the “Rabbits”, Polish prisoners who were used in German medical experiments.

     Readers may be familiar with Wein’s award-winning book Code Name Verity, also set during the Second World War. This new, companion novel includes a few of the same characters, but easily stands alone. Wein attended a summer conference held on the grounds of Ravensbruck and takes her readers into the very heart of the camp. While Rose, herself, is fictional, Wein points out in her “Afterword” that the camp certainly did exist and that all of the essentials of the story actually happened; she has merely filled in a few of the small details in order to complete the story.

     Rose moves from an innocent young woman, keen on the adventure of being in Britain and flying with the ATA, to a much more mature and thoughtful person who must deal first-hand with hardship, privation and cruelty. While still at home in the US, Rose had only a vague idea of events in Europe; she was busy with studying at school, playing basketball, enjoying family times at the lake and helping around the house. Only when Rose reaches England does she realize that her counterparts at the ATA have been dealing with air raids, food shortages, interrupted sleep and very little social life. And then she is captured; once she has been in Ravensbruck for a few days, even life back in England seems like an unattainable dream.

     Like many war novels, Rose Under Fire is a story of survival. Not only must Rose find every bit of strength she possesses just to endure, but she must also learn to depend on others for help. The importance of helping one another keeps the women strong and turns them into survivors instead of victims. Part of the survival is the constant theme of “tell the world”. The characters feel that, if the proof of their imprisonment and torture gets to the media and thus the rest of the world, those who did not survive will be vindicated. Wein ends the story with the Nuremburg trials in 1946 when the world does, in fact, learn about the atrocities of the concentration camps and the persecutors are finally punished.

     Wein gives her readers larger than life main characters who remain believable in the context of the plot, including a woman writer whose husband was Jewish, one of the many Polish “Rabbits”, a woman who is a Soviet pilot, and guards whose human qualities are evident, despite the role they must play in the camp system. They all become individuals with distinct personalities rather than the stereotypes one might expect. Not only would the novel lead to discussions about World War II, it also raises moral dilemmas as well. Do we always have a choice about what we do, or can we sometimes be forced into situations and roles which we would rather not accept?

     Wein has done extensive research, both with her personal trip to Ravensbruck and through the many print and electronic sources cited at the end of the novel, and so readers feel the punishments, smell the smells and can virtually taste the ‘non-coffee’ described by Rose. Wein lists Survivor Accounts among her research as well, and this has undoubtedly helped her put a human face on the many characters of the novel. Even months after the celebration of the end of the war, there are many, many scars, both literally and figuratively, left on the survivors. Yes, they want to “tell the world”, but it is only in trying to describe their ordeal that they realize how deeply they have been scarred and how unlikely it is that those who have not experienced a Ravensbruck can ever truly understand its shattering effects.

     This novel is historically accurate, and the details in it are appalling. The inhumanity described seems unbelievable, and yet we know it not only happened then, but it continues to happen in worn-torn countries now as well. The story is emotionally engaging and exhausting and provides themes for discussion in many areas: history, philosophy, religion. One of Rose’s means of helping herself and her friends cope is to recite and/or make up poetry, and these poems are another facet of the book to be explored. Sympathetic characters, scenes which could come from a horror movie, edge-of-your-seat plot action: this novel has them all. While the title suggests a book for female readers, I am sure the setting and action of the novel would have equal appeal for males. Although told from the perspective and journal writings of a teenager, this carefully researched and well-written novel would also appeal to adult readers who wish to learn more about World War Two from a new vantage point. In other words, this is a stand-out book which will appeal to all and deserves a place on every library or personal bookshelf.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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