Thursday, November 7, 2013

Spies who get caught!

Rose Under Fire
Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein, is the companion novel to Code Name Verity.  This book starts a bit after Code Name Verity ends and features only a few of the same characters.  The main character here is Rose, an American pilot working for the Air Transport Auxiliary in England.  One day, she flies off-course and is caught by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp, Ravensbruck.  She spends six months there before she escapes with some friends, and then she shares her story through journal entries.

Similar to Code Name Verity, this book is about the strength of friendship between women and just how much those friendships can mean to people.  I love that Wein gives friendship so much the spotlight in her novels, much more than romance, and that she makes clear that platonic relationships can do so much to help us through horrible times and keep us trucking on.  There was so much sacrifice of one person for another in this book, so much attention to the greater good or to help ease someone else's pain just slightly.  I think that was wonderful.  And, importantly, I loved that Rose was always the protagonist and hero of her own story.  She instigates the action in her life; she gets herself into a mess and she works with a team to get herself back out of it.  And then, when she's out, she deals with pulling together the pieces of herself to become a working human being again.

I also appreciated how much time Wein spent describing Rose's post-traumatic stress disorder when she got back to "normal life."  She spends weeks cooped up in her hotel room.  She can't put on clothes.  She knows what she went through but has trouble remembering the details of just how miserable and horrifying it was.  And when she has to help her friend to overcome those same demons, does it to make sure that they are both able to live full and valuable lives, it is a true act of courage that, I think, would go unnoticed by most people.

There was so much subtlety in Rose Under Fire.  Yes, there are subtle allusions to the horrors of the concentration camps.  But what Wein makes clear is that when you are living in such terrible circumstances, you need, desperately, to find a way to cope with the horrors around you.  And so Rose made up poems, told her friends stories, let her mind wander when standing out in freezing cold, ate the food that was offered to her, and then sternly didn't let herself dwell on anything that could cause a breakdown.  And then after she is out, we see just how much she struggles with acclimatizing herself back to the life that everyone wants her to lead.  How hard it is to carry out her task to Tell The World of the atrocities she witnessed while also trying to forget them so that she can move on with her own life.

At first, when I read this book, I almost thought it was too happy.  Not that it's happy at all, really, but Rose spends much of her time talking about the small celebrations and sweet kindnesses that were shared between the women in the camp, how they all stood up for each other and stood firm in their defiance.  She doesn't talk much about the vicious fights over food or about one prisoner giving up another, or all of the beatings and cruelties she witnessed.  And this really bothered me, honestly.  It was a bit like the idea of setting up people who live in true poverty as being wonderfully happy because they don't need as much as the rest of us do.  I thought that Wein was making it seem like people in concentration camps were happy with little things because they brightened life so much and made it easy to forget about the incinerators next door and the dogs that they'd sic on you.

I still think that Rose Under Fire seems to paint a rosier (forgive the pun) picture of the concentration camps than is realistic, but I also think that much of that is due to the survival mechanisms that our bodies and minds do for us, to shield us from what we are witness to.  I struggle, too, because does every book about the Holocaust have to focus on the cruelties and the evils and the back-stabbing and the starvation and the genocide for us to realize that it was a dark time in our world's history?  Or can't we understand the horrors of it even while shedding light on the good that people did, the risks they were willing to undertake for other people?  Does focusing on the good take away from the gravity of the situation?

And I don't mean to make it sound as though Rose Under Fire is a happy book.  It's not.  The pain runs very deep and through every page of this story.  But it also offers glimpses into the micro-activities and relationships of concentration camp life that we often do not get to see because we are so overtaken with the macro-level horror of it all.


  1. I know exactly what you mean - not happy exactly, but not as devastating as it might have been (but then maybe nobody would read it).

  2. I was one of like 3 people who didn't finish Code Name Verity. :( I need to try again.

  3. I am actually very interested in the ways people carve out an idea of bearableness in an unbearable situation. I find that to be a remarkable attribute of human beings -- how we can adapt to so much, that so many situations will become normal if they keep going for long enough. It's inspiring in a way and horrific in a way, and actually, it sounds like Wein captures both sides.

  4. I found Code Name Verity very moving, but suspect I need a break from that really personal level of horror before I can read this one.

  5. I think I should read Verity

  6. I agree, when I was reading it it did seem a little too much "look on the bright side" but then again once Rose is out of the camp I think she looks back and realises just how much she suffered through. I thought it was a great book.

  7. I can't wait to read this book because I loved Code Name Verity so much. You've made me curious about her portrayal of the camp.

  8. I really need to get around to reading this. I have it! Just haven't been reading this year. :(


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