Saturday, September 14, 2013

Book Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Book: Rose Under Fire
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Published: September 10, 2013
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

Rose Justice is a girl from Pennsylvania, who grew up next door to the Hershey Chocolate factory and captained the basketball team. But her knowledge of piloting planes, her determination to help with the war effort, and a stupid stunt over France have landed her in a German concentration camp.

There she will discover how low she and her fellow prisoners can sink. Huddled together with three and four other women in a single bunk, deprived of food, water, and clothing, and reduced to a number, she finds everything that has ever made her Rose Justice is stripped away.

She also discovers her own strength, and that of the women she is imprisoned with. From the girls who go to their deaths with their heads held high to her bunkmates who create a little family in the most morbid of conditions, Rose sees the durability of the human spirit.

But human spirits are sheltered in human bodies, and human bodies are frail. In a system which famously slaughtered millions, Rose and her friends have very little chance of making it out alive.

At one point I put down this book and wondered why I was reading it. I’m a wimp, really. Stories of privation and torture and hardship are not my cup of tea, especially when I’m so aware that they actually happened. Then I realized that I was in it for Rose. I wanted to be there to witness what she went through, as if she were a personal friend. You know that she made it out, because the conceit of the story is that she's relating it after being saved. But you become terribly, terribly concerned for her friends in the concentration camp. Who made it out? Who died? They're all so carefully drawn that their fates hit you almost as hard as Rose's.

There’s a macabre Hogan’s Heroes feel to Rose's relation of their endless schemes to keep themselves alive. They manufacture riots to cover up condemned prisoners escaping into hidey-holes. They switch out ID numbers to befuddle the guards. They use dead bodies to make the roll call come out right. It’s almost funny, until you remember why they’re doing it, and then you feel a little weird about giving the book an approving grin as they outsmart the guards one more time.

Like Wein's earlier novel, Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire is about female friendships in wartime, and not the hand-holding, brave-smiling homefront portrayals that we normally get. These are women who are fighting the same war as their brothers and fathers and husbands, and showing just as much courage and spirit.

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