Full disclosure: the author of Cybils finalist Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein, is a blogging/writing friend of ours. Yes, that did make me excited to read this companion book to Code Name Verity (reviewed here by Tanita and here by me), which I greatly enjoyed, but I did my utmost to evaluate the book just as fairly as I did the other finalists.
Though it's a companion book to Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire definitely stands on its own and doesn't require you to have read Code Name Verity to enjoy it. In fact, it takes place a bit later in the war—World War II—and while there are brief mentions of the characters from Code Name Verity, this story focuses on a new character: Rose Justice, an American transport pilot working in Europe to fly planes from place to place. On one of her jaunts to France and back, she gets in a bit of a fly-off with a Nazi plane or two, and it doesn't end well for her: it ends with her being sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women.
The story is told through the eyes of Rose as she pens her sometimes haunting, sometimes shocking memories of imprisonment, and she does so from the vantage point of newly acquired freedom: a hotel room in Paris, just after her harrowing ordeal. However, we don't simply get the prose version of things: we also get Rose's poetry, which gives everything a different flavor. If you've ever read the war poems of, say, Randall Jarrell…the raw honesty of a poem can convey so much more, such a different vision of war. That is what Rose's poems do—they lay bare the emotional core of the experience, and I absolutely loved them.
For me, that's huge, because I am not (for whatever reason—I'm not sure) a fan of novels in verse, and I have vastly varying reactions even to novels that contain verse.
In this case, I think it worked well for me not only because of the quality of the poetry itself, but also the strength of Rose as a character—she's a fantastic protagonist, one whom it's easy to root for and rewarding to watch persevere. Because she's so relatable and so vivid, that went a long way toward eliminating the "oh, no, not another concentration camp novel" feeling that this particular jaded reader sometimes has. (Having said that, I do have an interest in novels set during WWII—and my upcoming book involved extensive research into that time period.) It's just that…I think teens tend to be deluged with WWII novels and memoirs as part of curriculum, so I appreciated that Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity both draw readers into the story, the adventure, the characters, without pounding them over the head with the historical subject matter.
There's a lot to love here besides Rose herself, too. The side characters are distinctive, vivid, and do a lot of unexpected things to further the story and help Rose—and help her grow. And I appreciated that, in many cases, those who appeared weak on the surface were repeatedly proven to be strong. There are a lot of characters who have been physically debilitated by the camp, but they show again and again their force of personality, their inner strength and will. Rose must learn that inner strength for herself, not only to survive, but to do what needs to be done at the end.
Speaking of the end, the section of closure at the Nuremberg Trials was extremely well done. The beginning of the story—it did move a little slowly at first, I thought. The journal format, while it worked really well to move us between past and present as the book progressed and as things got more action-packed, it took me a while to get drawn in. But once I was engaged, I was hooked and couldn't put it down. (As you might be able to tell, this was one of my faves of the finalist bunch!)
You can find Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein online, or at an independent bookstore near you!