Rose Justice is a nineteen year old American pilot who is ferrying Allied fighter planes in Britain for the Air Transport Auxiliary Service. Rose is young enough that, unlike her fellow pilots, the war hasn’t touched her very much. One of her friends is Maddie, one of the two main characters from Code Name Verity. Their lives are pretty good, despite the hardships of the war. Rose has a boyfriend but isn’t ready to settle down, she’s doing something she loves and is helping with the war effort. The work is dangerous but they aren’t involved in combat or espionage. They hear gruesome rumors about concentration camps but everyone believes they are just wartime propaganda.
That is, until Rose is asked to ferry a plane to France right after the liberation of Paris. She’s captured in the air by two German pilots who force her to fly with them to Germany. From there, she’s assigned to Ravensbruck, a women’s labor camp for political prisoners.
This is a tough book to review, because it was a tough book to read. But I don’t mean that in a bad way. Wein takes you inside Ravensbruck, a concentration camp in World War II Germany (you can read more about Ravensbruck here). Wein describes in her afterword that the purpose of this book is to tell the world about the atrocities committed at Ravensbruck, and tell she does. She’s put pictures in my head that I wish weren’t there.
Most of what’s in this book isn’t news to me. I grew up reading and learning about the Holocaust. I’m Jewish and both sides of my family are of European descent, so it’s important. But if there’s one thing I can’t even bear to think about, its medical experimentation. Unfortunately, it happened. And since it’s true, I feel like I have a responsibility to know about it, even if I’d rather look the other way.
Two years ago, I visited a concentration camp (Auschwitz), and that visit brought a reality to this book it might not have had otherwise. Not that I would have doubted Wein’s account, thanks to her vivid and detailed description, and extensive list of historical resources, but it’s different when you’ve actually seen some of the conditions these women would have lived in.
What makes this book more than a historical account is the strength of Wein’s storytelling and characters. Rose is a poet, whose poetry might not be noteworthy in the “real world” but in the camp it’s a lifeline. It’s how she gets through each day, and it’s also a way of telling this story that brings beauty to a very ugly subject. This is a story of the horrors of the Holocaust but also about courage and friendship and discovering who you are.
Wein quotes wonderful poetry from Edna St. Vincent Millay, but often it is Rose’s poetry that is most moving.
Here is an excerpt from one of my favorite poems in the book:
Love Song & Self-Portrait (by Rose Justice)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. And if I did come back, what in return could I offer to you, who used to make so free with my softness and kisses and verse as if it were your due? I would offer you myself
in mismatched shoes and blood-soaked rags, shaved scalp all scabs
and face gone gray,
no old woman but a walking ghost
on a skeleton’s frame —
And you would be forced to look away. There won’t be anything to say.
Just as in Code Name Verity, Wein really thinks about the mechanics of telling a story through journals and letters. It’s more than just a format, it’s part of the story. What makes this book stronger than Code Name Verity is that the plot device doesn’t get in the way of the story. Wein keeps it straightforward and lets this story tell itself.
I was particularly compelled by Wein’s description of how hard it must have been for survivors to adjust to life after a concentration camp. To be alone, to eat real food, to put on clean clothes, to read and write. Simple things we take for granted every day. And she reminds us that, while the survivors may recover physically, there is a part of them that never leaves the camp.
In writing about the Holocaust, it must be difficult to write a novel that is educational but also entertaining – one that is horrific and true but doesn’t leave the reader feeling beaten. I think Wein accomplishes all of this. You don’t want to put it down, even when you don’t want to keep reading.
Two side notes: One, this is not a sequel so you don’t need to read Code Name Verity first. Second, Wein is described as a “young adult” writer, and I have to say I have no idea why. Of course I think teens are fully capable of reading and appreciating this book, I just don’t think it’s a “YA novel” — in case you’re someone who steers away from books marketed to teens.