You wouldn’t expect a novel about a teenager in a concentration camp to be even remotely uplifting, but “Rose Under Fire,” Elizabeth Wein’s follow-up to the historical blockbuster “Code Name Verity,” somehow manages to provide a sense of catharsis alongside its shock and chagrin.
When we meet Rose Moyer Justice, it’s 1944 and the Pennsylvania native is a pilot for the British Air Transport Auxiliary, delivering newly manufactured or overhauled fighter planes from factories in Southampton, England, to bases all over the country.
She’s exhausted but exhilarated, flush with the freedom of being far from home for the first time and in love with a boy who proudly sums her up like this for his parents: “Looks like Katharine Hepburn and flies like Amelia Earhart.” Rose is no ninny; she’s aware of the danger and tragedy unfolding all around her, but her “bring it on” spirit and sense of adventure practically jumps off the page. In quiet moments, she writes poetry, which appears throughout the book and gives readers an interesting perspective on Rose’s reflective side.
Aside from the occasional verse, Wein tells Rose’s story through letters and journal entries. These matter-of-fact dispatches abruptly veer from cheery to scary to bleak when Rose takes off from France’s Camp Los Angeles, encounters a pair of swastika-bedecked fighter planes and is bullied off course to a forced landing near Mannheim, Germany.
Looking back on the beginning of her ordeal six months later, Rose writes, with characteristic vim: “It is a pain in the neck climbing in and out of a Spitfire in a skirt. In a million years, I bet, those German airmen would not have guessed a girl was going to climb out of that plane… I stood on the wing with my hands up. They all backed away respectfully, their mouths open.”
These befuddled airmen ship Rose off to Ravensbrück, a Nazi concentration camp in Germany for women, where she is stripped of her hair, her clothes and even her identity; despite her American passport, she is incorrectly registered as French Political Prisoner 51498.
Rose’s descriptions of what passes for life in the camp are unspeakable (and, we learn from Wein’s author’s note, based on first-hand accounts from survivors): extreme overcrowding, intense starvation, relentless beatings, stomach-turning filth, back-breaking work, flea bites, maggots, dead bodies piled outside every door, dead bodies propped up at roll call to fill spots left by women who had disappeared or were too sick to attend.
This is difficult material for an adult; one can only imagine how a teen will navigate the Ravensbrück sections of this book. But it’s true, it existed, and Wein provides what appears to be a careful tour.
Amid the squalor and misery, Rose manages to make a few friends — or allies, really, since it’s impossible to imagine true friendship taking root in this hostile soil. One partner in survival is Roza, who belongs to a Polish transport of 74 girls known as “Rabbits” for their survival of Nazi medical experimentation.
She explains, “They’d slice your calf open and fill the wound with gangrene and then seal it up in plaster for two weeks. Or they’d cut pieces out of your muscles or your nerves. Or they’d cut a chunk of bone out of your leg and try to stick it in someone else’s leg. I am special — I got operated on five times!”
You might be wondering, where’s the uplifting part? This comes when we see how Rose and her cohorts unite not only to survive but also to spread word of the Rabbits’ suffering to the world.
They come up with a simple song to help them remember the name of each maimed girl, and they pledge to share the list with the first rescuers they encounter when the horror is over. That they are certain of anything, let alone that the horror will ever end, is testimony to the resilience of youth, and Wein’s tense action-packed wind-down to Rose’s story is testimony to her staying power as a writer.
“Rose Under Fire” is bound to soar into the promised land of young adult books read by actual adults — and deservedly so, because Wein’s unself-consciously important story is timeless, ageless and triumphant.
Egan is the books editor at Glamour.
Rose Under Fire
Hyperion: 368 pp., $17.99, ages 14 and up