Books / Reviews

Reading Elizabeth Wein: A Comparative Review of Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire

By: Rebekah Fitzsimmons

Elizabeth Wein is a young adult author who was born in New York, lived in England and Jamaica as a child, studied at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, and now lives in Scotland.  Her first series of young adult books, the Lion Hunters series, focused on Arthurian England and sixth century Ethiopia.  This blog post is focused on her second young adult series, the Young Pilots series.  According to her biography, it was her husband’s interest in piloting and learning to fly that inspired her to write her two latest novels, Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. There are some spoilers for Code Name Verity, as any real discussion of the plot/format of the book reveals a lot about the text.

On Companion Books

Code Name Verity was published in 2012 and was a critical darling.  The book won numerous awards, including the UK Literary Association Award, the Edgar Award and the Catalyst Book Award.  It was a Printz Honor Book, a Boston Globe/Horn Book Award Honor Book, a Golden Kite Award Honor Book and was shortlisted for the 2013 CILIP Carnegie Award and the Scottish Children’s Book Award.

Rose Under Fire was published in 2013 and was instantly marketed as a “companion volume” to Code Name Verity.  In a YA market saturated with series and trilogies, the distinction of a “companion” book is notable.  The books obviously form a set: both center around young women pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary, or the civilian pilots, who helped ferry planes for the Royal British Air Force during World War II.  Both books share a few characters and locations (the ATA barracks in Hamble, South Hampton; Castle Craig in Scotland).  But overall, the books tell two entirely different stories, in entirely different styles and make use of the written form in two very different ways.

An individual who has not read Code Name Verity could pick up Rose Under Fire and read it all the way through without feeling lost or confused.  However, the reader who has read Code Name Verity first will have gotten a good deal more background information on the ATA and the RAF.  Rose Under Fire jumps right in to the story without a lot of background or explanation about the set-up of the ATA, the barracks where the pilots live, the jargon the pilots use (chits, ferry, names for planes) and the restrictions placed on the female ATA pilots compared to their male counterparts.

Maddie, one of the narrators and protagonists of Code Name Verity appears in Rose Under Fire as a friend and fellow pilot of Rose Justice, the narrator.  At points throughout Rose, Maddie makes reference to the events of Code Name Verity, which occurred eight months prior to the start of Rose’s story.  Those familiar with Maddie’s story will understand how much those events and the loss of her friend, the other narrator/main character “Verity,” greatly informs Maddie’s actions, her relationship with her fiancé and her reaction to Rose’s ordeal.  Those who haven’t read Code Name Verity will likely be intrigued by the references made, though the details given in Rose Under Fire somewhat spoil the ending of Verity.  If recommending the books to others (which I will do with enthusiasm), I will strongly suggest that a new reader start with Verity and move on to Rose in order to fully experience the richness both books have to offer.

On Form

Code Name Verity plays with the narrative form and gives new meaning to the idea of the unreliable narrator.  The first half of the book is the written confession of a captured British spy imprisoned in Germany.  The confession is an attempt to save herself from additional torture, punishment or even death, and the spy, called “Verity,” is condemned by her fellow prisoners as a collaborator and a coward for sharing information with the Germans. Her confession quickly becomes a story about how she met her best friend Maddie, how they worked together in the ATA and how Maddie died in a plane crash after delivering Verity to Germany for her mission.

However, the second half of the book, told from Maddie’s perspective, reveals that much of the information in Verity’s confession is lies, misdirection and potentially sabotaging intel for the Germans.  The form of the first half of the story, then, becomes an entirely untrustworthy document, a story woven under duress by a gifted storyteller who tried to appear cooperative while disguising the truth from her captors.  The levels of depth of Verity’s story are astonishing, as Maddie later reveals that there are hints and clues throughout the confession that would aid anyone hoping to find or rescue Verity and other bits of information that act as warnings to the Allies who might read the account.  Verity’s characterization of other people in the story are called into question, since her lengthy descriptions of her primary captor and torturer seem to be written to disguise the fact that this captor is also the one responsible for getting the written confession into Allied hands.

The unreliability of the first half of the novel places an added level of suspense on the second, since we, the audience, are unsure if the people Verity has described are real, if they really perform the tasks she claims, and if they are dead or alive.  The suspense of the story combined with the discomforting realization that everything we thought we knew is in question makes reading the second half of the book an astonishing reading experience.  As an academic who has studied the concept of memory being individualized and unreliable and the idea that truth is relative, this complex weave of narration, misdirection and code was fascinating to attempt to unravel, while the emotional power of the story and the bond between Verity and Maddie was beautifully written and drove the story straight through to its heartbreaking end.

Unfortunately, Rose Under Fire lacks a lot of that complexity and depth when it comes to playing with form, time, memory and the written word.  Rose Under Fire starts out as a diary, a beautiful blank book given to Rose by Maddie, a place for her to record her thoughts and difficult tasks, like an accident report for a fellow ATA member who died in a crash.  However, the diary is left behind after Rose ferries her well-connected uncle to France: we find out from letters between Maddie and her husband that Rose never returned from that trip and is believed to have been shot down by enemy fire somewhere over the continent.  Instead, we find out that Rose was captured by Germans and imprisoned in the infamous women’s concentration camp, Ravensbruck.  The story picks up again after Rose has been liberated from the concentration camp and has found her way from the American embassy in Paris to the room her uncle had reserved in her name at the Ritz, on the off chance that she was found alive.  Since Rose picks up her story from the flight when she was captured, we still get a linear story, but since we as the reader know that she is writing this all down in a hotel upon returning from Ravensbruck, there is not a lot of suspense about whether or not she will survive to make it home.  As a part of the concentration camp survivor genre, it is also pretty fair to assume that the majority of the people Rose meets in the camps will not survive.  The lack of suspense, then, means this is a very different book from Code Name Verity: there is no mystery to unravel, no reason to hold your breath while turning pages and no fingers-crossed moments as you root for the main characters to succeed and survive.

Rose Under Fire is, however, a thoughtful  and intense look at what it takes to survive in oppressive war conditions, the strength we gain from those around us and what it means to be a survivor who has promised to tell the world what happened to those who didn’t make it.  The story is a compilation of Rose’s memories and the variable and malleable nature of memory also becomes a theme of the book. Certain memories are too intense for Rose to record, others she must wait to describe until there is another person in the room with her to help dilute her fear, and there are other memories that are simply gone from her mind because the trauma of the moment or the weight of other memories have caused her to forget.  However, certain memories Rose is desperate to record before they fade, because they tell the story of the Ravensbruck Rabbits: young Polish women who were the victims of terrible medical experiments at the hands of the Nazi doctors.

Rose is a budding poet and the book is filled with her attempts to record the atrocities of what happened to her and her fellow prisoners in verse, as well as weave life and sanity-saving beauty into her ordeal through the composing, recitation and sharing of poetry.  It is these poems that Rose ultimately uses to help spread the word about her ordeal in the camps and to tell the story about the women who did not survive, but throughout the second half of the novel, the burden of doing enough and telling the world weighs heavily on Rose and the other survivors.  So, while this book was a little less exciting and a little more gruesome than Verity, it is ultimately just as worthy of attention.

On Female Friendships

The center of both of these novels is the bonds between women, whether as traditional girlfriends, as fellow ATA pilots, fellow victims of a war, or as survivors.  Code Name Verity is very much centered around the relationship between Maddie and Verity: how they met, how they worked together, how they admired one another, and the things that they were forced to keep from one another because of the war (loose lips sink ships!)  Maddie forgives Verity for lying or disguising the truth of her work easily, because she believes in the Allied cause and has a professional respect for what Verity is able to accomplish.  The camaraderie between the female pilots is strong and while there is competition and rivalries, they are united through the common cause of war and a desire to prove themselves as good as their male counterparts.

Rose Under Fire also features a strong friendship between Rose and Maddie: they confide in one another, support each other, and help each other through the most difficult of times. However, the relationships at the center of this book are between the women of the Ravensbruck concentration camp.  In the face of unrelenting horror, abuse, torture, medical experiments and death, the women of the camp find small groups of friends or “camp families.”  Rose finds her way into a camp family with a few of Ravensbruck’s “rabbits” or Polish girls who were medically experimented on by German doctors and who remain crippled as a result.  Her camp family protects her as she recovers from a beating, teaches her how to survive the camp rules, and provides emotional support for her and for one another.  Rose’s ability to compose poetry is a gift to these women, as well as the stories that she tells them.  In the face of unrelenting Nazi horror, these women sacrifice their food, their health, their dignity and even their lives in an attempt to save one another and in the service of ensuring that the story of the Rabbits is told to the entire world.  Many of these women believe that Rose, an American, is the most likely person to be able to spread the word and tell the world, because she is an articulate and gifted story teller and is more likely to be heard by the Western world than a Russian or a Pole.  The harrowing lengths to which the women go in order to protect Rose and ensure she lives to escape Germany is devastating and awe-inspiring all at the same time.  The debt Rose feels she owes these women is staggering and as she unfolds all that was done for her and the other Rabbits, the reader starts to feel the crushing weight of that debt as well.  The final scenes of the novel detail Rose’s struggle to find a way to honor those women and the memory of them, while maintaining her own sanity in the face of overwhelming anguish and trauma.

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