Despite being an avid reader of WWII fiction, I had never heard of Ravensbruck or the Rabbits. After reading Elizabeth Wein’s devastating follow-up to Code Name Verity I know I will never forget them. This book is difficult to read at times, but I was unable to tear myself away.
American teenager Rose Justice finishes her high school degree early in order to come to England to transport planes to the Allies in 1944. She is immediately caught up in the excitement and drama of the war until she lands in enemy territory and is taken to a women’s prison camp called Ravensbruck. There she is confronted with the true horrors of the Nazi regime. Rose meets incredibly brave women and promises to tell their story, should she ever escape. But when she does manage to get back to Allied territory she is struck with fear, uncertainty, and guilt. How can she tell the world of the atrocities inflicted upon her friends when she can barely speak about it herself?
Rose Under Fire was one of my most-anticipated books of the year and boy did it deliver. Maddie is back in a supporting role, but it is not necessary to have read Code Name Verity before picking up Rose Under Fire, though the two books do make fantastic companions and if you HAVEN’T read Code Name Verity, get thee to a bookstore and make it happen. RUF is presented as Rose’s WWII journal, including letters from other characters and some truly moving poetry written by Rose, an amateur poet. Elizabeth Wein‘s use of poetry to help Rose process the war was a stroke of brilliance, one that speaks to Rose’s character and also to the healing power of art. Wein’s recreation of the notorious women’s prison is haunting and hard to forget. It is to her credit that I felt slightly sick during the Ravensbruck scenes. Rose is made of incredibly strong stuff, and though her time in the prison camp is horrifying, I found her dealing with grief and post-traumatic stress syndrome after the war even more heart-breaking. The politics and complex issues of justice surrounding the war tribunals was also fascinating and well-portrayed.
One of the most interesting and haunting characters is Anna, a young German prisoner turned prison guard. Anna is obsessed with all things American and befriends Rose, hoping to learn more about the US. She admits to being the so-called Angel of Sleep, a desperate pharmacist who anesthetized the Polish girls so the Nazi ‘doctors’ could experiment on them. She is conflicted, blunt, remorseful, but ultimately a survivor, and her scenes are the ones that I continue to think about.
I’ve read a lot of holocaust literature, and this one affected me the most. I felt like I was reading The Reader (Bernhard Schlink) all over again. I’m not sure why Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire were published as YA and not adult fiction- there is nothing about them that says YA to me, other than the fact that the protagonists are teenage girls. The best YA comp that comes to mind is Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which has been published as both YA and adult fiction but owes its success to an adult readership. That isn’t to say that teenagers won’t enjoy Wein’s books, but be aware that they are not for the faint of heart. But perhaps that’s the point. Just because something is hard to read doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read it. If we go through life avoiding hard subjects and horrible truths we learn nothing.
Throughout the book the prisoners of Ravensbruck vow to get out and ‘tell the world,’ and that is essentially what Wein has done. She has paid homage to the women at Ravensbruck, particularly the Rabbits, the Polish girls who were experimented on in the name of science, whose names are included in the end papers of the book. I knew nothing about the Rabbits until Rose Under Fire. And after reading this book I am certain I will never forget them.
Rose Under Fire is available now in hard cover from Doubleday Canada.