No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

2014/31: Rose Under Fire - Elizabeth Wein

I WILL TELL THE WORLD. I say that so fiercely. I say it with such conviction, such determined anger. But I couldn't even tell Mother, could I? A few pages ago I vowed I wouldn't tell Mother. How can I possibly tell the world?

I enjoyed Code Name Verity immensely, despite the grimness of Julie's story: on visiting an airshow this summer and seeing Spitfires and a Lancaster, I was reminded that I had an e-copy of Elizabeth Wein's second novel about women in WW2.

It is considerably more harrowing than Code Name Verity, being set largely in a concentration camp (I'm not sure I would have started reading if I'd known / remembered this!): but it is also unexpectedly hopeful, with themes of redemption and atonement and compassionate humanity to counter the bleak cruelty of the camp. Again, the main characters are all young women: Rose, an American pilot; RĂ³?a, a camp inmate; and Anna, a guard at the camp. The story's told from Rose's point of view, and is punctuated by poetry, very much in the style of Edna St Vincent Millay (whose works are also quoted). It takes her from the wedding of her friend Maddie (who featured in Code Name Verity) to the Nuremberg Trials. But really, it begins with the funeral of Celia, another ATA pilot who died trying to take down a V-1 flying bomb with her wingtip.

The memory of that lingers in Rose's mind: she attempts to emulate it (and succeeds), which leads to her own downfall. And later, in a German factory, she finds herself unable to work on the assembly line, making fuses for those bombs.

The scenes in the Ravensbruck camp are appalling: they are based on survivors' accounts. In her afterword, Elizabeth Wein writes 'My book is fiction, but it is based on the real memories of other people. In the end, like Rose, I am doing what I can to carry out the last instruction of the true witnesses - those who went to their death crying out: Tell the world.' In such a situation even the smallest acts of humanity, whether from the guards or other prisoners, are treasured. And despite the horrors of the regime, love and selflessness are not wholly absent. Hence Rose's survival.

The descriptions of flying are as evocative and magical as in Code Name Verity, and I was fascinated by the glimpses of everyday life during wartime: London buses without their windows ('they take the glass out on purpose - people would rather sit in the wind than risk windows exploding in their faces'), small boys hunting for souvenirs at crash sites, buzzing the Eiffel Tower on VE Day. And the darker side of war, too: Wein does not gloss over brutality. It's apparently intended for young adults, but I'd hesitate to recommend it to a younger teen. The moral landscape is far from monochrome: Anna, in particular, is certainly not a caricature. And perhaps it would have been easier to end on Rose's departure from Ravensbruck: but there is so much more after that.

Made me cry, beautifully written, brought home just how grim the prison camps were. (My previous mental pictures were drawn largely from war films such as The Great Escape.) Rose Under Fire also made me want to research the internment camps in France in WW2: my grandmother and father were interned in one, and I don't even know which.

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