Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire offers a plausible tale of a fictional young woman living during World War II. Wein explores not only the events of the war, but the upcoming women’s rights movement and the experiences of people with disabilities in this time. Structured as a series of diary entries and letter transcripts, Wein cleverly contrasts the cheerful first half of her novel with the more melancholic second half. The two sections are divided by the capture of Wein’s protagonist, Rose Justice, by enemy forces and subsequent placement into a concentration camp. Soon after her arrival in Ravensbrück, Rose befriends one of the girls, or “Rabbits,” chosen by the camp doctors to undergo non-consensual human experimentation – an event that occurred in real-life Ravensbrück. Wein takes this opportunity to discuss one of the realities of people with disabilities in Nazi Germany as well as the culture of ableism still present today.
One of the more striking features of the novel, however, is the jarring lack of “people-first” language used by the author. Rose’s lively personality is diminished by her casual defining of her friends only, at times, by their disabilities. Also troubling is her use of words such as “cripple” to refer to people with physical disabilities. Perhaps this is a deliberate stylistic choice by Wein, as “people-first” language did not emerge until the 80’s and thus Rose would not have been knowledgeable in that area.
Overall though, Wein delivers a well-researched period-novel of a young woman’s coming of age in a war-torn continent, weaving together an adventurous tale with a serious reflection on the lives of the occupants of Nazi concentration camps.