You know, if you tried to write bad guys as totally, utterly evil as the Nazis into a secondary world fantasy . . . you couldn’t do it. I truly don’t believe you could. I’ve been thinking about how I might try to do that, and honestly, your readers just wouldn’t believe in your villains. The Nazis were simply beyond belief.
We see this every time we get reminded about what they actually were like, what they did. Remember the first time you saw Shindler’s List? I do. Because it is a great story and a great movie as well as a history lesson, it sticks with the viewer. Or it did with me.
And I expect I’ll remember the first time I read Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.
This is a great story. That’s essential. But it’s definitely also a history lesson; an important one in this era when – it seems to me – young people (and some not so young) have basically forgotten all about WWII and the Nazis. They know the names, but they have forgotten what the Nazis were like. That’s why people can throw around the Nazi accusation and the Hitler comparisons so freely: because they have no idea what they’re saying.
Has any group ever been as purely, comprehensively, calculatedly evil as the Nazis? Not even ISIS, probably. The ISIS thugs practice slavery and rape, torture and murder. They’re definitely evil. But tying down little girls, splitting open their legs, packing the wounds with gangrene, and leaving the wounds untreated for weeks to see what happens? I doubt that would ever occur to them, if only because I doubt they have any conception of rational thought. That sort of thing takes a . . . peculiar veneer, shall we say . . . of rationality.
Maybe North Korea comes close? They’ve got the death camps, but even they (probably) don’t do sadistic medical experiments on young teenage girls. Do they? Dear God, I hope they don’t.
So, the Nazis. The heart of Rose Under Fire is the concentration camp of Ravensbrück, and in particular the Polish “Rabbits.” These were the girls and women used in those experiments. Despite this, this story is not just a compelling read, it is actually uplifting. The bravery of the women at Ravensbrück is as astounding as the evil of the Nazi doctors and the concentration camp guards. Those women never gave up. I mean, of course some did. But as we see in the story, others hid the Rabbits, shared their bread when they were starving, and made continual tiny gestures of defiance. And huge gestures of defiance, sometimes – smuggling the Rabbits out to (slightly) less awful camps and propping dead women up in their places during roll call to get the count to come out even, for example.
Though the story is definitely centered around Ravensbrück and the Polish Rabbits, it is not a documentary. Like Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire has one primary narrator who tells its story in epistolary form.
Rose is a young woman pilot, an ATA pilot who loves poetry. She’s American; she had a really nice childhood with a close-knit family and a father who owns a flight school, so she’s been flying since she was, like, twelve. Her job is to ferry new and repaired planes to the airfields where they’ll be used by the fighter pilots. She came to England specifically to help with the war effort. And she’s terrified of buzz bombs.
Buzz bombs are an important element in Rose Under Fire, partly because it’s after Rose spots one in the air and successfully tips it – makes it stall – that she gets lost, is spotted by German fighter pilots, and is captured. She winds up in Ravensbrück shortly after that. And because of the epistolary format of the story, when Part II opens, the first thing we find out – thank God – is that she survives. Because she couldn’t write anything much while she was in the concentration camp, so when she picks her notebook back up, it’s after everything is over.
This is a huge plus for the reader, as you might imagine. No matter how grim the rest of the story gets, you know Rose is going to escape. And she does. But along the way, Ravensbrück comes to life for the reader. Rose herself, of course, already has. She is such a beautifully drawn protagonist. Brave, but not unbelievably brave. Self-sacrificing, but not unbelievably noble. Honest, but not unbelievably self-aware – she is as capable of fooling herself as anyone.
They [starving women] were so far from being human that at first it didn’t even occur to me they could be fellow prisoners – I thought they must be hobos who had crawled in off the train tracks. God knows what I thought! Your brain does amazing acrobatics when it doesn’t want to believe something.
Rose feels completely real.
And she escapes. Plenty of people did escape from Nazi concentration camps, generally to be recaptured and shot. But here, Rose escapes, with two of her friends – and we know which ones from the moment Part II starts. That makes it so much easier to read, seriously.
Of course, Rose couldn’t have escaped without the help of other prisoners and a lot of luck. She thinks this over and over: I am so lucky. It’s quite striking, under the circumstances. And yet, she *is* really lucky. Not in a way that threatens to knock the reader out of the story. Still, her acknowledging that she is lucky does make the occasional handy coincidence more believable.
And after the fact . . . talk about post-traumatic stress. I want to re-emphasize that Rose is such a real person. And real people do not come out of something like that with a casual quip and stroll away untouched.
At first I dreamed that you
offered warm arms of comfort and strength,
pulling me close,
your soft lips brushing and kissing my bare head,
all of you loving me,
the nightmare over and the dream come true –
Now I only dream that you
offer me bread.
She does recover, I will add here. But not unchanged, because of course not. The poetry sprinkled throughout – by Rose herself, and a lot by Edna St Vincent Millay – encapsulates something of the experience of Ravensbrück in a way that prose can’t. (I’m such a sucker for fiction that includes poetry, it turns out.)
The secondary characters also seem like living people. Róza and Irina and Elodie and Lisette – somehow for me Lisette’s personal story is the most purely heartbreaking, though I don’t even have children. Anna Engel is one of my favorites; she demonstrates that a rough-talking chain-smoking German woman who’s worked directly for the Nazis can be as heroic as anybody. She is probably the most important continuing character from Code Name Verity and I loved her there, too – the way she changed completely in the reader’s eyes over the course of the story. Here, of course, we already know that she is a decent person.
The way the ending unrolls is believable, too. The way Rose can’t face telling anyone about what happened to her or what Ravensbrück was actually like, even though she swore – with all the rest – to tell the world. She has to work through that block. And she does. She can’t bring herself to testify at the Nuremburg trials where the doctors are held to account for the Polish Rabbits, but the story closes with the reader certain that she will indeed testify at the one where everyone else is held to account for Ravensbrück.
This is an intense but immensely readable story, intricately composed and beautifully told, with characters you’re certain must have been real (some were) shown against a background you really can’t believe could ever have been real (it was). Everyone should read this, and remember that not only does real evil exist, but that it’s possible for ordinary people to fight it.