When Chachic and I first decided to begin the feature Novel Gossip we both knew that one of the books we wanted to read together was Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. We both loved the heck out of Code Name Verity and knew that this was a book we'd need a bit of friendly support for.
The bloggers behind Chachic’s Book Nook and See Michelle Read chatting about books, thousands of miles apart.
While our thoughts were a bit all over the board during Rose Under Fire, we both really enjoyed it. But let me preface this discussion by giving a plug for Code Name Verity (that is, if you're one of the crazy people who haven't read it yet). While it's not exactly a sequel, the beginning of Rose Under Fire focuses a lot on what happens in Code Name Verity, so naturally, it'll make your experience that much better to understand the story. Also beware: this is a concentration camp book. So. You know...feelings...and all that ahead. Our conversations took place over several days and has been edited to remove spoiler-y bits. Here's the description for Rose Under Fire via Goodreads:
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?And here we go...
Michelle: I'm curious about this book because honestly it's starting just a wee bit slow. I'm not connecting with Rose yet. What do you think of her as a narrator so far? I know she is a naive, young American but lots of the observations she makes seem a little too daft - maybe they weren't for the time period, but since we have so much information now, it seems a bit like overkill. I don't know, maybe she'll grow on me, I sure am hoping so.
Chachic: Rose sounds really young, I was a bit surprised that she's only 18. I don't think the observations that she makes are unnecessary because I don't know a lot of these details so it's all interesting for me. We didn't really study the war that much back in school and the focus was on how it affected the Philippines, not on what happened in other parts of the world. It's either that or I've forgotten most of it.
Michelle: This is probably a prime example of my egocentric American up-bringing showing, but I suppose I just assumed everyone who reads this book would have a pretty good knowledge of WWII history. WWII is pretty much THE CONFLICT that historians talk about. People actually refer to it as 'The War' and there are hundreds of books and documentaries that come out constantly -- it's a huge fascination over here. I'm curious if that kind of mindset is present in the Philippines or just in America.
Chachic: I think that kind of mindset over WWII is only present in America. I don't see that kind of fascination in the Philippines. If anything, it's been said that Filipinos have short memories and we tend to forget things.
Michelle: I am wondering if all these little things that keep popping up are foreshadowing of what is going to happen to Rose: the concentration camps, having the disable a bomb fuse, etc.
Chachic: I know what you mean about foreshadowing! So we already know that Rose will end up in a concentration camp, I'm a little scared for her as she hears details on how horrible they are.
Michelle: I know! I'm worried for Rose too, I CRY like a little girl during any story about concentration camps so I'm not sure how this is gonna go.
Chachic: I usually try to stay away from books about concentration camps or about WWII but since Elizabeth Wein wrote this, it's a must read for me.
[about half-way thorough]
Michelle: Oh my. Poor Rose. This scared little Rose is sorta freaking me out. These descriptions of her first few days in the camp, her 'controlled flight into terrain' -- how terrible! I can't imagine how sick that would make you.
Chachic: We're only just at the start of Rose's experience and I already feel so bad for her. It's a terrible experience and I can't imagine how she must have felt while going through it.
Michelle: Also reading about how cruel the women guards are at Ravensbruck is terrible. The part that really stuck out to me was was "The randomness has left it's mark. I am scared of anything arbitrary now - of anything that happens suddenly." Because what a perfect way to describe how horribly the guards behave. How depressing and sad. While they are busy dehumanizing the inmates, the guards are also dehumanizing themselves. What amazes me, like Rose, is that these guards are scaring them, and hurting them on their own. No one is telling them how far or what to do to the people. The Nazis let the guards have free reign to cause as much pain as they felt like.
Chachic: I know, I was a little surprised when she said that the guards were women, it's not men who were mistreating the prisoners but fellow women. And on such a massive scale - there were thousands of prisoners in that concentration camp. You're absolutely right, while the guards are dehumanizing the inmates, they're also dehumanizing themselves. It probably became transactional for them to be mean, they were probably not even thinking about their actions anymore.
Michelle: I think I misunderstood Elizabeth Wein's initial reason in making Rosie a bit naive -- where I didn't like it at first, now, I need no convincing she was spot on. She has built this perfect setup for Rose's inability to fully comprehend what has happened to her once she's in Ravensbruck. Rosie can't conceive that's she in a real concentration camp because she has no idea WHAT THEY ARE. It's genius.
Chachic: I think you have a point about why Rose was so naive at the start of the book, she has no idea what she will undergo because she doesn't really know what concentration camps are. Also the naivety provides a contrast to how different she is after her ordeal.
Michelle: Yes. Also I am incredibly thankful that Elizabeth Wein is using flashbacks to tell Rose's story. "I am writing at a rate of 170 miles an hour and going nowhere." If Rose had been telling all these awful things in the moment, I think it would have been just too painful to read. Creating these flashbacks gives the reader a safe place to land in between bouts of insanity and breaks up the madness. I am infinitely glad she wound up free and that she was only in a camp from September to April. One day was probably enough for anyone.
Chachic: Me too. We get pauses to let the horrors sink in before moving forward. Also, it's a practical way of storytelling because like Rose said, she would never have been allowed the luxury of having writing materials while she was in prison. Sigh, poor Rose. She will probably endure so much before we get back to the present. I am so glad she's alive though.
Can I just say that I loved that bit when Rose first gets out of the plane after she lands in Germany and the guys there give her an applause of her perfect landing? From fellow pilots to another pilot, reminding her that they're just human beings too.
Michelle: Agreed. That was a pretty perfect moment for Rose. I hope it helps sustain her in the months to come.
Michelle: So this is probably obvious to everyone but I figured from the beginning that once in the camp Rose would memorize names of the people she meets there. Especially after Felicyta talks early on in the story about how people just don't even know what happens to their families.
Chachic: It wasn't certainly wasn't obvious to me that Rose would have to memorize names when she got to the camp! It didn't really occur to me. But she only had to memorize the Rabbits' names, right? I was wondering why it was just the Rabbits that she had to remember. Was it because what they experienced was one of the most cruel things in that camp?
[after finishing the book]
Michelle: Yeah, I think because the Rabbits were subjected to some of the most horrible medical ‘experiments’ imaginable. They effectively carried physical proof on their bodies of what happened to people in Ravensbruck.
Michelle: Maybe I'm coming into this book all wrong but my gut reaction to Rose Under Fire is this: while good and with lots of interesting tidbits, I did in no way like it half as much as I liked Code Name Verity. I mean I didn't even CRY when reading it and I cried buckets during Code Name Verity. Buckets. Maybe it’s because what I like so much about Code Name Verity was this great relationship between two young women and then what happens to them during the war. I didn't feel like Rose had a similar connection to anyone in Rose Under Fire.
Chachic: I do agree that Rose Under Fire didn't blow me away like Code Name Verity did. I remember I sobbed towards the last few chapters of Code Name Verity and I couldn't stop until I reached the end. And even after I finished reading it, I would become teary-eyed if I come across anything that reminded of the book. I agree with you that what I loved about Code Name Verity was that it was about this beautiful friendship between two girls who wouldn't have met if not for the war.
Michelle: I just didn't feel the same way about the friends Rose makes in the camp.
Chachic: While Rose did meet friends in the camp, to the point where she considered them her family (how could she not when they went through so much together? She had to cling on to something), it really isn't the same as the friendship in Code Name Verity.
Michelle: However I did like the fact that Rose is an American. I don't think I've ever read one about an American in a camp before.
Chachic: Yeah, I think it was a unique angle making Rose American. She was the only American in her block, right? Probably in the whole camp.
Michelle: One aspect that really stuck out to me was how the prisoners fought back. Most of the other books I've read have been of the "make the best of a bad situation' type. So I really like the subversive nature of the Rabbits and Rose and Irina -- they were always trying to find ways to 'fight' the system. Even as if how Rose said it was all pretty passive resistance when you looked at it from the outside, but to them it felt like a big deal. Which it was -- especially when you go back to how paralyzed with fear Rose was even after she was safe in the Ritz hotel in Paris.
Chachic: Like you, I thought it was brave of the girls to try and fight back whenever they could. It was good that they has small victories to keep them going. I'm amazed at how they manage to stay alive and stray true to who they are when they could have easily just given up and became emotionally dead zombie-like creatures. Yes, they were always filthy and hungry but their personalities still defined them. How Lysette was still a mother, Rose was still a poet and Irina was still a pilot. In spite of everything, they retained pieces of their lives within them. I ached for them because they all had these lives that were suddenly taken away from them.
Michelle: Speaking of secondary characters, I think one of my favorite people in the entire novel was Anna Engel -- the Kolonka in Ravensbruck. I was utterly fascinated by her evolution from prison hospital tech to prisoner herself. Plus it didn't hurt that she was a tough, sarcastic lady. I liked her lots.
Chachic: I really liked Anna Engel as well, how she represented the idea that even Germans suffered under their countrymen if they went against the system. I like how she tried to be a good person in small ways - she wasn't horribly cruel to Rose and the other girls. But I absolutely had no idea Anna was the same Anna Engel in Code Name Verity! She is, isn't she? I was so surprised at how Elizabeth Wein connected her characters like that. How Anna was a big part of Verity's story and then Rose's as well.
Michelle : ANNA ENGEL IS THE ANNA FROM CODE NAME VERITY?!?! My use of caps is indicative of my level of genuine surprise! I did not catch that one AT ALL! I knew I should have reread it before I read Rose Under Fire!! Now I need to go back and reread that section in Code Name Verity! Awesome. Thanks for pointing that out to me. I would have felt like a dork for not figuring it out.
Chachic: She's the Engel in Code Name Verity, right? I'm not too sure because I don't have my copy of Code Name Verity here with me so I can't check. Maybe I should have reread Code Name Verity before Rose Under Fire too, I think I would have liked the latter more if I did.
Michelle: Yeah, I think it all comes down to the fact that I don't really love Rose as a person herself. Still. I did like some of her poems and how she told the story (with flashbacks through writing) but I never really felt like she was real. Especially in contrast to how I felt about the characters in Code Name Verity.
Chachic: I felt the same way, I wasn't as invested in Rose as I was with the characters from Code Name Verity. Maybe that's why I felt like I was distanced from her story.
Michelle: And I felt like it was a total cop-out that we never see Rose reconcile with her family (besides that initial phone call) back in America. I'm guessing she does eventually, but that very human, painful moment would have done a lot for me to connect with Rose. It's a completely unique experience! Although to be fair, I do understand why Rose stays in Scotland. It was a whole country torn apart by war, not just from afar, but right there with all the bombings, etc. so I can see how she'd like to be there with people who KNEW. But I just can't see her family not swooping down on her en masse once she turned up again. Even if the reunion had to be in Scotland, I think it would have been worth it as far as Rose's character is concerned to have included it in the story.
Chachic: I know, I was so surprised that we didn't get a scene of Rose reuniting with her family. Like you said, I would have thought that her family would fly to Scotland to see her. Of course, they would want to see with their own eyes how she's doing. Speaking of her family, I kind of expected her more to think about them while she was at the camp? I mean it was mostly Nick that she thought of and talked about while she was there, and she didn't even really love him. I get that it's the idea of Nick as a hero and not the actual person himself but I would have thought that it would be normal to miss her family.
Michelle: Yeah that was pretty odd too. Maybe she needed to distance herself so she wouldn't become utterly depressed? I'm not sure. I hope it doesn't come across like I didn't like the book, because I really did. But I was expecting so much MORE from Elizabeth Wein after Code Name Verity. I wanted to be wowed and it sorta felt like a lot of other concentration camp books I've read before. Like she spent so much time on imparting a message that she forgot about building awesome characters. Sadness.
Chachic: I really liked reading the book as well but yeah, I don't love it as much as Code Name Verity. I think I liked it more than you did? Because I can't compare it with other concentration camp novels. I did like the idea of "tell the world" and how Elizabeth Wein said that's what she tried to do with Rose Under Fire. It's an emotionally heavy read and now I need a happy book!
Michelle: Yes! A change of pace after the heartbreak of this one very much in order.