Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

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Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: Towards the end of World War Two Rose Justice, a young American pilot who came to Britain as a volunteer, is captured by the Germans and sent to Ravenbrück. Throughout the horror-filled days that follow, she learns that survival requires far more than simply staying alive.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 472 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Electric Monkey
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781405265119

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2013 Costa Children’s Book Award shortlist

There's a list of names on the title page of this extraordinary and moving book. Note it well: these seventy-four women are real. As a group they were known as the Ravenbrück Rabbits, and they were the victims of medical experiments carried out to help improve surgery for German soldiers wounded in the field. Little or no anaesthetic, poor aftercare: these things, while horrible, fit in with what we know of the concentration camps. What many will not know is the truly gut-wrenching fact that sometimes the doctors did not even bother to follow up on the experiments they carried out. All that pain, infection and disability (for those lucky enough to survive the procedures), and all for nothing. They didn't even help the enemy soldiers recover from their injuries.

It is impossible to read this book or to think about it afterwards without a sense of helpless rage at the things our fellow humans are capable of perpetrating on each other. The theme is nothing new: war makes beasts of men and women, and its effects do not end when the last bullet is fired. What is striking about this book is the number of contrasts it contains. The main character, a young American, is an ATA pilot, a well-fed, well-dressed, well-connected young woman whose family actually helped her come to Britain to help in the war effort. When some of the youngsters she meets in the camp were risking their lives to transport explosives, Rose was chatting about boys and dresses at school, and going on canoe trips down the Juniata River. The only hope, the only desire these woman still have is that someone will escape and tell the world what happened to them, but before Rose's capture, her own mother dismisses the tales of camp life which do leak out as mere propaganda. The story continues beyond the camp to the trials at Nuremberg, to the sleek and sober men on trial, and to Rose's own shame at the devastation wrought by the Allies on Germany. And, perhaps most moving of all, the two things that keep these women fighting, that help them through each day, are poetry and story. Rose narrates scenes in which handsome young men come to rescue them (although, by the end, these tales tend to be dominated by accounts of sumptuous meals), and it is through poetry that Rose is able to express what all the women feel. Imagination, mere words win out against cruelty and the threat of death.

Nothing in this book is ever simple, nothing is easy. It may be fiction, but in a deeper sense it is utterly true — it informs and moves in equal parts. True, there are already a vast number of books about this shameful era. But getting to know the intimate details of the lives of wild, angry Roza, arrested at fourteen, their camp mother Lisette, wily wheeler-dealer Elodie and the Russian fighter pilot Irina makes the story vivid and fresh once more. Rose is courageous, principled and determined to survive, but the tight-knit group which welcomes her is more than just a comfort: it is the only way to get through. People literally give their lives for each other, and even after death they can help: the image of prisoners propping up corpses to fool the indifferent guards into thinking everyone is present at roll-call is not one which will fade easily from the reader's mind.

If you will pardon the flippancy, this book is definitely a ten-tissue-tome: the life is so well-described, the experiences so visceral that they almost become lyrical. Elizabeth Wein is a wonderful writer whose earlier book, Code Name Verity is amassing prizes and accolades, and this book is destined to do the same. It's not that we're suggesting you read it: you must. It's beautiful and ugly, generous and cruel, and it should be on the shelf in every school library. As the Rabbits said: Tell The World.

Code Name Verity, by the same author, is another book about young women in war-time, and once again one of them is a pilot. It is a companion to this book, with different characters, but it is equally superb. If you haven't read it, you will want to. We also have a review of Wein's The Pearl Thief.

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