Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Oh, Rose... Rose, Rose, Rose, what can I say about you?

"Code Name Verity" was my pretty powerful introduction to Elizabeth Wein - a story about loyalty, resistance, and survival in Occupied France, it tore my poor heart to shreds and left me reeling. Needless to say, I was on her next book like white on rice. 

I didn't realize this book was a follow-up to Verity, which would have probably pushed me towards reading it sooner. Not quite a sequel, "Rose Under Fire" features quite a few of the characters from the previous story, and we learn about their fates, good and bad, as we go along. I hadn't realized how much I wanted to see those people again until I read the book, but I guess that's the quality of Wein's writing at hand - the characters feel like real people, and like real people, you want to know what happened to them after the story was over. The "Where Are They Now?" of books, so to speak.

However, this book and I got off to a pretty rocky start, mostly because I didn't care one bit about Rose for almost half of the story.

Rose Moyer Justice (yes, that is her name) is an American pilot sent to the UK to taxi airplanes to and fro to the airbases in 1944. She's only 18, but thanks to her Daddy owing an airfield, she has flown more hours than most men on the base combined. She also has an uncle high up in the British services who cuts the red tape for her, a boyfriend that adores her, a surprisingly blase attitude towards the war, and is also an accomplished poet.

Basically, she's the kind of privileged person I hold in contempt, not because of her privilege itself, but how casually she treats everything because of it. Much of my critiques towards Tris Prior as a character could really be applied to Rose - having privilege is not, in itself, a problem, but a character having it isn't particularly inspired to change or re-evaluate their worldview on their own. In Tris' case, it was always being right. In Rose's, it's... well, all of the above.

And much like in real life, Rose grows as a character once all of her privilege is taken away from her. On her way back from a mission in France, she is thrown off-course, is captured by the Nazis, and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. She makes friends among the women there, particularly a group of Polish girls the Nazis used to experiment on called "The Rabbits," as well as a Soviet fighter pilot called Irina. The rest of the book details some of the things Rose witnesses, her escape, and her role in the unveiling of what really happened in concentration camps. 

I'm still not sure how I feel about Rose. Compared to the other women she meets, hers is easily the least compelling story, but... I don't think this is about comparing suffering. Not really. More to the point, the book (and Rose herself,) often acknowledge her privilege, and keep it in check, which is not something you appreciate until you realize how rare it really is. So yeah, I don't love Rose, but the story doesn't ask that of me either. 

I also appreciate how this book draws the line between realism and fantasy. "The Nick stories," which Rose invents to distract her friends when things are at their worst, are heavily romanticized and Hollywood-esque, as per the book's description, but I also think they can be read as an example of how it can sometimes be tempting to embellish history, to make it more bearable and/or to make oneself feel better about it. It isn't something out of a book - after WWII, governments did their best to paint themselves in the most flattering light possible and maintain the image (see: Robert Paxton)  

Fiction, even historical fiction, can be the same - books that are supposed to be set at a certain time period gloss over or outright ignore some of the more unsavory parts of history for whatever reason, and fiction that is "inspired by" a certain time period often cherry-picks the necessary elements without acknowledging the bigger picture (see: Sexism in fantasy.) 

What I'm getting at is, this book could have been very, very different, and I'm glad it is not. It could have ended on a high note, with Rose, Roza and Irina's daring escape suggesting things would only go uphill from there. It could have ended a few years later with a romance with a handsome reporter of a pilot (never mind that Rose's contact with these people is only brief) thus telling us that Everything Ended Up Okay for Everyone (side note: am I the only person who thinks those types of epilogues are one of the worst things that can happen to a book? Say I'm not alone!) 

But none of these things happen. The story follows Rose after the escape, as she deals with loneliness, PTSD, all the difficulties she encounters trying to tell her story to the world, her feelings of inadequacy and shame. It shows how some of the other survivors are faring as well, how their lives were affected by the war, and just generally doesn't pull its punches in showing us, the readers, reality's dirty little face.

And that's something I appreciate.

Note: Image via BookLikes.

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