Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein – Review by Leah Pileggi
Historical fiction only works for me when I am right there in the action. I have to feel and see and even smell that time and place in history. I have to hear it in the voices of the characters. ROSE UNDER FIRE ultimately does that for me, as did Elizabeth Wein’s previous women-pilots-in-World War II book, CODE NAME VERITY. The two are companion books, not a series; you don’t have to read one to understand the other. But if you liked (or loved, as I did) CODE NAME VERITY, you will surely want to read ROSE UNDER FIRE.
Ms. Wein is a pilot, and her love of flying is ever present in ROSE UNDER FIRE. Rose Justice is an 18-year-old American pilot with the British ATA — the Air Transport Auxiliary — in World War II beginning in the summer of 1944. Trained as a pilot by her father in Pennsylvania, Rose helps to ferry planes that will be used in combat with no possibility of flying into combat herself. It’s not really good enough for her. She wants to be on the front, to fly into France where the fighting is. But for now, delivering planes for real combat pilots will have to do.
Rose’s ferocious desire to fly into battle accentuates her naïveté. That’s to be expected of a woman so young and so strong willed. She’s in turns giddy that she’s met Nick (seemingly her first real boyfriend) and exceedingly and appropriately thankful to her Uncle Roger, a member of Britain’s Royal Engineers, who arranged for her to fly any planes at all in England during wartime.
A recurring “character” in the book is what is alternately known as a “flying bomb,” “buzzbomb,” “V-1 flying bomb,” “dooblebug,” or “pilotless plane.” When Rose comes across a couple of young boys who have discovered an unexploded flying bomb, she jumps in without thinking to gently wrest it away from the boys, then she throws it – as she had often thrown a softball back in Pennsylvania — blowing up a small tree in the distance. An example of Elizabeth Wein’s beautiful writing:
“For a moment we were stuck like that, a little boy and a big girl, holding the living heart of a V-1 flying bomb between us.”
In the beginning of the book, references to these death machines whiz through the story, continuously grazing the reader. Their many names and references become repetitive. We get it; a flying bomb will be crucial later on.
The first quarter of Rose’s story is setup. It took a bit too long for me, and I could have done without a couple of the lesser characters.
But then, BAM.
When Rose finally gets her chance to fly into France, she becomes a victim of the warning, “Be careful what you wish for.” This book is the story of survival – or not – at Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women, where Rose is imprisoned and where medical experiments that I had never heard of were being carried out. I have read about the horrors of concentration camps, but some of this depravity was new to me.
Wein’s research of Ravensbruck (including a week-long stay) gives the rest of the story the sights, sounds and smells that I had been waiting for. I was pulled into that desperate world.
Women inmates were stripped, starved and beaten. Forced to lift and carry corpses, hundreds and hundreds of corpses. Forced to stand for hours, even days. And the experiments. It’s a lot to absorb. ROSE UNDER FIRE might be a bit much for tender-hearted teens, but ultimately it is the story of how these women coped, even finding friendship.
Even though ROSE UNDER FIRE is written as a journal, and we know that Rose survives, I had to find out how she did it.
Leah Pileggi began writing a journal twenty years ago when her grandmother died leaving many unanswered questions about her life. Leah started the journal as a record of her life for her daughter, but stories began to emerge. Her first novel, PRISONER 88, is a middle-grade historical novel set at the Idaho Penitentiary in the 1880s. She also published a historical narrative called HOW TO DESIGN A WORLD-CLASS ENGINEERING COLLEGE: A HISTORY OF ENGINEERING AT CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY. Her first-person pieces occasionally appear in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and her blog (a home for non-boring nonfiction) called “It’s a Wonder-Filled Life” can be found at leahpileggi.blogspot.com. You can find Leah online at leahpileggi.com and on Twitter as @pileggi88.