Rose Under Fire is a companion book to Code Name Verity, but all that means in practice is that a couple of the characters from the first book reappear; it is not necessary to have read Code Name Verity. Rose Under Fire in fact is quite a different book than Code Name Verity, and much better, in my opinion, although the first was quite good as well.
The main character of this book is Rose Justice, an 18-year-old American who is in Britain in 1944 to help courier planes back and forth for the Air Transport Auxiliary. Rose tells her story as a remembrance in the first person, so we know she survives in spite of being intercepted by the Luftwaffe and sent to Ravensbrück, which was the only major Nazi concentration camp for women, located some 50 miles north of Berlin in Germany. After getting out, she has to learn to readjust to freedom from fear, pain, and the constant threat of death, and also fulfill her obligation on behalf of those who did not survive to tell the world about what happened.
In Rose Under Fire, the author utilized the testimony of women who had survived the camp to create composite characters. In an interview she stated that in particular, she drew from the autobiography of Betty Lussier, an American ATA pilot who was the goddaughter of William Stephenson, the man responsible for representing Britain’s wartime intelligence agencies in the USA. The experience of this pilot contributed to the story of Rose. The other two main protagonists owe their stories to the real life accounts of Wanda Połtawksa, one of the first Polish women to undergo medical experimentation at Ravensbrück and also the originator of the term ‘Rabbit’ for these women, and a Soviet Air Force pilot named Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova.
Rose’s experiences in the camp do not make pleasant reading, and yet even Rose (and the author through the voice of Rose) could not bring herself to describe some of the atrocities committed there. This was also a problem for the survivors after liberation (both in real life and in the book), as the question of testifying at Nuremberg arose. For these women, to have to relive the experience by testifying about it was on the one hand unthinkable. On the other, if they did not, the perpetrators would go unpunished and the dead would not finally get some “justice.”
Evaluation: Is it worth your while to read “yet another Holocaust novel”? Yes, I think it definitely is. This author has done excellent research, but manages not to go overboard in how explicit she is. Nevertheless, it is one of the few books that expose what happened in the important women’s camp of Ravensbrück. It is also an engaging story of friendship and support and enduring hope among unforgettable women. Book clubs will find that there is a great deal to discuss, especially with respect to the relativity of morality in a world turned upside down. Highly recommended!
Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2013
Note: On the author’s website, she has posted a commemorative page on the real Polish Rabbits, which will be of great interest for readers.