Jul 2, 2013

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire US cover Rose Under Fire UK cover

Rose Under Fire is a companion to Elizabeth Wein’s deservedly acclaimed Code Name Verity: set only a few months after the events of the latter, it tells the story of Rose Justice, a pilot from Pennsylvania who joins the war effort and ends up in the same unit as Maddie from Code Name Verity. When ferrying an airplane back from Paris, Rose is captured by Nazi pilots and escorted to Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp. There, she befriends a group of fellow prisoners known as “the rabbits” — all are victims of horrifying medical experiments conducted by Nazi doctors, and they’re protected by the rest of the camp’s inmates because they’re living evidence of the senseless cruelty of the Nazi regime. In the last few months of the war, when the Allies’ advances cause many SS officers to resort to mass killings to hide the evidence of the Holocaust, the best Rose and her friends can hope for is that some of them will survive and tell the world.

It probably goes without saying that although Rose Under Fire is fiction, it’s grounded in detailed research about the horrifying conditions at Ravensbrück and the medical experiments conducted there. As you can imagine, this makes for a rather gruelling reading experience, though one that I found very much worth the emotional effort. As I’ll explain in more detail in the second half of this post, Rose Under Fire had me thinking about why we tell such difficult stories; why we use fiction to explore the darkest corners of history and of human experience; and why “telling the world” again and again continues to matter. Indeed, these questions are in part what Rose’s narrative is about.

Rose Under Fire is divided into three sections: the first mostly takes place in Southampton, in the aerodrome where both Rose and Maddie are based; the second describes what happens during Rose’s time at Ravensbrück; and the third is about the aftermath of the war, the ongoing process of surviving, and the Nuremberg trials. Much like in Code Name Verity, Wein uses first person narration to excellent effect. Some of the most moving moments in the novel happen when the reader spots the small and not so small differences in Rose’s voice and in how she tells her story brought about by her experiences at Ravensbrück. There’s a lot that’s implied, and there are plenty of silences and gaps that are allowed to speak for themselves.

Although the novel can be roughly divided into a “before”, a “during” and an “after”, in reality even the “during” is more of an “after”. Keeping a journal of any sort at Ravensbrück would have been impossible, so Rose tells her story retrospectively once she’s in Paris, where she’s taken after her escape from the camp. Because this is a first person narrative, the reader knows all along that she has survived — but survival is more than just physical, as Rose Under Fire reminds us again and again. Rose’s narration is infused with her struggle for psychological survival, with her attempts to rebuild her life and her sense of herself after going through the unthinkable, with the effort of simply living with what she witnessed, day after day. This struggle is very much the focus point of the novel.

But it was actually the last section, which is about the Nuremberg trials and the various different ways one can “tell the world”, that really made Rose Under Fire come together for me. Rose and her fellow concentration camp survivors are required to balance their need to make the world aware of their experiences with their need for self-care. How exactly do you tell the world when you can’t endure the thought of standing in front of a group of strangers and describing the horrifying experiences you were put through? Some of Rose’s fellow survivors choose to be witnesses at the trials, while others choose not to. Wein is very, very careful not to frame one decision as right and the other as wrong — the narrative acknowledges that the survivor’s first obligation is to themselves and to their own recovery, and that the last thing they need is to be pressured or pushed any further. Still, there’s no getting around the guilt one experiences when put in a situation like that, and the novel explores these complicated feelings with nuance and care.

I was very happy to see Rose Under Fire implicitly validate all these different ways of processing and living with difficult experiences. Sometimes, even the most well-meaning among us can end up forcing people’s experiences of violence and horror into a too-neat box: we tell them not to let such experiences define them; we urge them not to become victims; we remind them of the importance of speaking up for the sake of those who’ll never have the chance to; we beg them not to crumble — except there’ll be times when you just do. These exertions are meant to be empowering, but there’s a risk they’ll become yet another layer of pressure placed on people who have gone through unimaginable horrors. Even the victim/survivor dichotomy we establish is fraught with problems: as Renay so sensibly said in her review of The Shining Girls,
[S]urvivors are who they are because they were once victims of something. It’s not as if there is an island of experience, where you’re a victim, and you find a way across the ocean to the survivor island, leaving the victim island behind for good. But I see it as a much more intricate concept; an archipelago of experience connected by choices we make as we recover or regress in a loop as our lives continue, caused by good, happy times or bad, triggering times that we can travel to any time. This isn’t All Dogs Go To Heaven, or a scale where ticking forward means it’s a struggle to go back. Time travel, the ultimate metaphor for life: we live in a series of infinite loops of our combined experiences. We’re always moving backwards and forward in the timeline of our lives through the events we’ve lived. That’s how memory works.
Horrifying experiences often do change people, and there might be times when they find themselves transported back to them. This is not something they allow to happen because they’re not coping well enough; it’s just something that happens as part of the ongoing process of surviving, day after day.

This brings me, in a roundabout sort of way, to all the questions I said the novel poses: why do we tell these stories? Why do we dwell on the details of horrific experiences? Why do we remind the world of the gruesome reality of suffering, again and again? I think we tell them in part as a way to avoid the denial of experience we risk slipping into in our understandable urge to push back against disempowering narratives. Stories about violent experiences often risk becoming exploitative or voyeuristic, and I should clarify that this isn’t something Rose Under Fire ever does. Wein handles Rose’s story with sensitivity, and uses sophisticated narrative techniques to make sure the horror is implied — it’s present, but it’s not any more graphic than it needs to be. And yet the details of the horrors these women endured are there. Telling the truth, the full truth, is necessary if we want to do people’s stories justice. There will never be an ultimate survival narrative — there will only be individual voices, individual attempts to grapple with the insurmountable. The more stories we tell, the closer we’ll get to recognising them all for the valid human experiences that they are.

Notable bits:
Incredible. It is just incredible that you can notice something like that when your face is so cold you can’t feel it anymore, and you know perfectly well you are surrounded by death, and the only way to stay alive is to endure the howling wind and hold your course. And still the sky is beautiful.

Hope—you think of hope as a bright thing, a strong thing, sustaining. But it’s not. It’s the opposite. It’s simply this: lumps of stale bread stuck down your shirt. Stale grey bread eked out with ground fish bones, which you won’t eat because you’re going to give it away, and maybe you’ll get a message through to your friend. That’s all your need.

I think it is the most terrible thing that was done to me—that I have become so indifferent about the dead. I would be able to do a human anatomy course without ever feeling faint, do surgery with steady hands, clean up anything and not be sick and never mind the blood.
Maybe I could be a doctor.
A real one—go to medical school—
A poet and a doctor. Maybe I could.
This is the first time I have thought of it. Maybe I could.

Rose Under Fire is now out in the UK; the US edition will be out in September.

(Have you read it too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. First of all, I'm so excited I have a new Elizabeth Wein book to look forward to! I had no idea!

    Second of all...I'm fighting the urge to quote, like, the entire second half of your post back to you! I'll settle for just a bit: "Rose and her fellow concentration camp survivors are required to balance their need to make the world aware of their experiences with their need for self-care. How exactly do you tell the world when you can’t endure the thought of standing in front of a group of strangers and describing the horrifying experiences you were put through?"

    All I could think reading this was "rape culture rape culture rape culture." That's not the only way to read it, obviously, but I found your words and the ideas behind them to be really powerful. I can't wait for this book to come out in the US!

  2. Laura, I'm now feeling VERY transparent, because while writing this post I kept thinking about the parallels with rape culture too. And as much as the book is about a specific moment in history and the horrors that took place there, I consume stories voraciously in part exactly because there are bits to every experience that resonate with other things I've witnessed. The points the novel makes about allowing survivors the space to react and cope with things however they want (and however they CAN) make sense in every context. Anyway, I can't wait for the US release either, so you and all my blogging friends across the pond can read it.

  3. I know I will be reading this book.

    Your review, well, what can I say...it's beautiful. I'm sure Wein eloquently brought this very specific time in history to life in a way that resonates across many circumstances, but even if she didn't, you certainly did. I have to admit that like Laura I just kept thinking "rape culture"...there was no avoiding it. You know how you can sometimes read things that aren't actually directed at you, and just feel wholeheartedly that they are anyway? That's how your words felt. I love you for that (among many other things). I cannot wait to read this book.

  4. I had no idea this one was connected to Code Name Verity. I'm really looking forward to it now. It's intersting that multiple people thought of rape culture when thinking about this. I recently visited the Holocaust museum in Washington DC and was thinking something similar. How incredibly difficult it is to dwell on the horrors that happened, but also how very important it is to learn about them.

  5. Beatiful review, Ana! And I want to repeat what the others have said above, but that seems superfluous. Let me just say that what you write feels so very true.

  6. This sounds hard to read, and Code Name Verity was hard -- harder than I'd necessarily want to reread (we shall see), but not than I'd want to read once. I am interested to hear about the aftermath parts though, particularly. Code Name Verity doesn't get into that very much, but the recovery part is always intriguing to me. Like the whole of Among Others.

    Also, I love the name Rose. There are so many kickass characters called Rose.

  7. The premise of this novel sounds amazing, though I am sure it is painful to read. There are so many aspects of your post I love, including your thoughts on why bearing witness to the Holocaust (and similar atrocities) continues to matter and the fact that returning to the scene of traumatic experiences is an inevitable part of surviving, coping, and living.

  8. I've got this on order! I so loved Code Name Verity I decided I deserved this one as soon as it came out. Your review makes me want to read it even more, thanks!

  9. Great review, makes me think of more things I wanted to say in mine but didn't get around too :)
    I really appreciated the way that it never verged into "torture-porn" because it could have done so very easily.

    It acknowledges the damage done (this sounds very cold and clinical, which Rose Under Fire is not) but it never glories in the horror, its a very careful balance that Wein has achieved, and it is wonderfully done.

  10. I am rereading this post after finishing the book late last night (this morning?) myself, and I cannot help but quote something else back at you:

    "There will never be an ultimate survival narrative — there will only be individual voices, individual attempts to grapple with the insurmountable. The more stories we tell, the closer we’ll get to recognising them all for the valid human experiences that they are."

    The book made me think about this so much.

    I said it back in July and I will repeat it now: beautiful review Ana.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.