All three of us are extremely excited about Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire, companion novel to the amazing Code Name Verity, so we opted for something a little different: dinner and discussion. We have no crepes to offer (we ate every delicious bite), but here are the notes from our discussion – some spoilers and multiple characters without full explanations included!
Book summary (from jacket): “While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?”
Short version: Read Code Name Verity. Read Rose Under Fire. They are incredible.
(Just for background, Julie read Code Name Verity last year and recommends every chance she gets; Katy read Code Name Verity just before Rose Under Fire; and Emily has Code Name Verity high in her TBR pile.)
After we all agreed we loved the book, Katy broke the ice, noting Rose Under Fire is not nearly as much of a nail-biter as Code Name Verity.
J: The structure is quite different, but the author couldn’t have done the same thing. it would have lost the power of surprise.
E: It’s refreshing to read something where a romance doesn’t overshadow everything. Granted, true romance is almost impossible under wartime, but true friendship is not only possible, it’s vital.
K: Like even though Maddie was married, her husband was a minor note in the book – the defining relationship was actually that Rose was her bridesmaid. Much more so than the reality of Rose’s relationship with Nick.
J: I was fascinated to see Anna Engel again and the increased complexity of her character.
E: Even in wartime, you have a range of goodness in people – the ideology behind the war is remote, and the fellow human in front of you, suffering, is pretty immediate. I guess that how you found out who’s “good” or “evil” in that situation: look at what they do with the power that they’re given over other people. Do they acknowledge their humanity, or not?
K: There were conflicting characters on both sides, showing good and evil both – resistance fighter Peter in Verity, for example.
J: Irina’s situation after the war was another facet of those complicated relationships. She couldn’t return to her own country because they would automatically suspect her as a former prisoner. She had such limited opportunities after the war, too, and that must have been so hard for women who won respect during the war. They lost it again so quickly afterward.
E: The entire culture of the ’50s plastered that false façade over everything – June Cleavers and Stepford Wives, everything deliberately and horribly normalized in the media and popular culture.
K: That had to be supremely frustrating for these women who had spent their youth as heroes, makers and doers. They would have been in their thirties and forties by that time, mostly finished with kids and bored out of their skulls at home.
E: One of the most horrible realities that I found in this book wasn’t even the camp – it was the denial of the horrors that went on there. Everyone believed that it was anti-German propaganda or a Jewish lie. There was still a huge amount of anti-Semitism in America and Britain. Rose was descended from German immigrants, and many other Americans were as well – the Germans were a lot more “like us” than Jewish people in people’s heads.
K: I think part of it was also a disbelief of scale – like people thought that it was simply exaggerated, there was no way there could be that many or be that horrible. It was unprecedented.
J: Actually, there was the Armenian genocide in the early 1900s.
K: Good point – I wonder how much people in the U.S. were aware of that? [Note: pretty well, actually, thought it wasn’t as large.] But look at what’s happening in Syria today – even with multiple video sources on the ground, we can’t make a case in the world court of who it actually was, and for a while if it was even happening. They were still trying to argue that they were faking.
E: It’s really hard to imagine the level of suffering that a person can go through when we’re surrounded by security and safety – both for people at the time and as readers looking back on it.
J: Wein was great at showing that disconnect between what different people were doing at 18. Rose had spent her entire life thus far canoeing and going to dances and Girl Scout meetings, and it was literally unbelievable meeting Roza, who was biking bombs around in Poland at 14 and motherless at 16. Her whole persona was wrapped up in being a prisoner and a Rabbit, because she had no other life, no other identity that solidified before the camp.
E: Part of what made Ravensbruck so awful is that it was completely arbitrary and random, and dehumanizing. The awareness of your inevitable death, but not knowing when, combined with illogical orders and nearly random coincidences, like all of the tall girls getting the bunk-clearing detail – that would drive anyone insane.
K: They mentioned that, at the end – you could tell who was at the camps because of the look in their eyes. It wasn’t just the normal horror of war – it was actual madness.
E: Soldiers on the front knew that war had risks, but you could minimize them, or they were expected and understandable. That horrible randomness of the camps – they might decide that they didn’t like your curly hair, or your height, or you got shuffled into the wrong bunk.
K: The surprising thing to me was that it was clear that Ravensbruck was initially meant to be a somewhat humane facility. Everyone with their own bunk and blanket, adequate toilet and hospital facilities. But the longer the war went on, the worse the conditions got –huge amounts of people, little food, no medicine, no clothes. Even for the people in charge, fewer things were available.
E: And they continued to dehumanize them. By the end, there were so many atrocities to cover up that even with the new gas chamber, they couldn’t do it all.
J: One question I had when reading Rose was whether Wein intended to write two of these books, or if she just sunk so much time into the research that another story needed to be written.
K: I’m also very curious to see what she writes next – there are so many other stories she could tell about World War 2. Another facet of the Nazi regime, or maybe the Russian Front?
J: If you’re looking for a story set in the Soviet Union during WWII, Between Shades of Grey is excellent.
[Brainstorming other reads about World War II: The Devil’s Arithmetic; The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom; Number the Stars by Lois Lowry; The Book Thief; Sarah’s Key; The Boy in the Striped Pajamas; Schindler’s List; The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood…]
J: If Rose had known what was to come, do you think she still would have been unable to make fuses? Or was it like Roza said when Nazis were beating her mother to make Roza talk – “I was lucky, I didn’t know anything.”
K: She did have a glimpse of some of the horror first, and knew that she was giving up a pretty comfortable position. Based on her strength of will in later situations, I imagine she might still have refused, even if she had known. Or maybe tried harder to work in some sabotage.
Cover rainbow of Rose Under Fire from Elizabeth Wein’s homepage
J: The new cover of Code Name Verity is a lot closer to Rose Under Fire. Maybe the publishers didn’t think [Verity] got the audience that it deserved?
E: I really liked the other cover. (J+K agree.) It was very dynamic and of course enlarged body parts are always more of draw for older teens, which this is geared towards. I would really hesitate giving this to a 13 year old, and the new cover doesn’t seem to say that.
K: There’s another cover out there that has almost identical design to the first Verity, which raised my eyebrows. The plot is completely unrelated, though.
E: I found the poetry surprisingly good, although I usually cringe at any teen poetry.
K: I thought it was very well done. Admittedly, I scanned over the repeated sections pretty quickly.
J: I gave it a very light reading; it didn’t appeal to me. I did like the Briar poem.
Cool Bonus Link
Girls Like Giants’ interview with Elizabeth Wein
Disclaimer: Advance reading copies were provided by publishers at book conferences and through Netgalley. No money or chocolate was exchanged for this post.