Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein–book review

I read Rose Under Fire entirely on the strength of Wein’s other book set during World War Two: The Verity Code. If you’re not familiar with The Verity Code, I’ll sum it up in two words: absolutely brilliant. Wein uses a fantastic narrative device to tell the story of two young female ATA pilots during WWII. I laughed, I cried, and recommended the book to anyone who would listen. Since the publisher touted Rose as “the verity code #2,” I happily downloaded it and cracked the virtual spine. I wanted to love this book. Instead, I liked it a lot. The reasons are varied and not all together fair.

Rose is set during WWII, and Rose Justice is a pilot for the ATA. She is an American living abroad and writes about her life in a journal her friend Maggie (whom readers will recognize from Verity) has given her. Rose is a typical teenager and a product of her time: she writes poetry, she worries that the boy she’s dating will propose, and she feels grown-up because she wears nail polish and drinks champagne at a friend’s wedding. All of that changes when she is captured by the Germans and placed in Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp.

Some of the tension is taken out of the story because of how it’s constructed. The reader knows Rose lives since most of the journal is written after Rose has left the camp. We don’t know how intact she is, of course, but we know she is alive. Also, the first third of the book depicts Rose as a normal, boring teenager so well that at one point I hunted for the back cover copy online to learn more about the book. Once I discovered Rose would be captured by the enemy and spend time in a concentration camp, I could forgive the banality of the opening chapters.

The middle third is written after Rose leaves the concentration camp. She writes everything she can remember from her capture to her eventual (spoiler alert) escape. She writes with an almost clinical detachment. While this is perfectly understandable considering everything Rose has gone through, I did find it to be a bit odd. At times I wondered if this were a thoughtful choice of the author or something that happened by accident, as if the author found the topic so horrible to write about that she subconsciously distanced herself from it.

The last chapters discuss the Nuremberg trials. Again, Rose is writing in her journal, but this time she’s writing a rough draft of a non-fiction piece she’s been commissioned to write. Again, the section isn’t as emotionally moving as it could have been. And again, this could have been a thoughtful choice of the author and a natural product of the framing device; however, the writer in me couldn’t help but wonder if Wein subconsciously distanced herself from the work because it had been so painful to research and write.

Would I recommend Rose Under Fire? Yes, absolutely. It was harrowing and educational and riveting and I stayed up late to finish it. Like all good books, it stayed with me for several days. However, Rose didn’t measure up to Verity. Perhaps if I had read Rose first, I would have loved it, but since I read Verity first … well, I have to admit that Rose didn’t quite measure up. If you can only spend ten dollars at the bookstore, buy The Verity Code. If you can spend twenty, though … buy Rose Under Fire too. And chocolate bars to eat after you’ve finished reading them both.

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