Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

I just read the netgalley version of Rose Under Fire.  Afterwards I spent lots of time researching Ravensbruck, mostly because of some reviews on Good Reads that really annoyed me.  So this review is kind of a mix between a review of the book and some of the research I found.

ImageRose Under Fire is a companion book to Code Name Verity and takes place in the last few months of the WW2 on the European front.  Rose an American girl has been raised in Pennsylvania flying planes with her dad, and somehow gets her British uncle who is high up in the Royal Engineers to pull strings to bring her to England as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary, women and other noncombatants who flew planes or pilots to where they were needed for combat.   

Following the liberation of Paris, Rose flies her Uncle Roger to Reims, via Paris, where they fly over the Eiffel Tower.  After landing, Rose is to take a Spitfire back to Southampton, but instead she sort of falls off the face of the earth.  Following are letters from her aunt and her friend Maddie trying to trace her but we learn that on her way back Rose tried to come up behind a flying bomb, got lost and then encountered armed enemy planes which forced her into Germany and took her to Ravensbrück.  
The story of her six months in Ravensbrück are told through in the form of a memoire after she has gotten out of Ravensbrück, how we don’t know, but she is now in the Paris Ritz, afraid of leaving her room, but writing her experiences down.  It’s all kind of murky.  The story is intense and the author Elizabeth Wein, did a great deal of research into the topic.  Some may ask, as I did, why there are so few Jews mentioned.   About 20% of the inmates were Jews.  [According to Rose Seidel, a scholar who has written a lot on Ravensbrück, “an estimated 26,000 Jewish women passed through or were murdered at this camp.”]  It turns out that Ravensbrück was a concentration camp set up for political prisoners though many died from diseases as well as from “selections.’  In all about 92.000 women died there. Most of the prisoners were sent out to do labor in factories as was Rose.

Rose, or French political prisoner 51498, was put in block 32 with a mixed group, though mostly Poles, along with women who had been experimented on, known as Rabbits, because their legs had been experimented on, and they become the focus of her story. These Polish women, there were seventy-four of them, and in Rose Under Fire, as in reality, there was a real struggle to hide and protect the Rabbits so that their story would be learned.  Rose becomes friends with several Rabbits, in particular, Róża and Karolina. Rose’s barrack decides that they need to learn all the Rabbits’ names and Lisette suggests “a poem for a mnemonic.  Make yourself another counting-out rhyme.”[p202]  

I had not read much about Ravensbrück and doubt that I am alone.  Ravensbrück was in East Germany so it was not well documented after WW2. It also was a camp for women and therefore has not been studied to the extent of other concentration camps. In the end this story is so packed full of information about Ravensbrück and different crimes that went on there, and about part of the Nuremberg trials as well as making Wein’s characters truly come to life.  Elizabeth Wein did a great job of bearing witness to the horrors that went on at Ravensbrück as well as imagining the type of response a girl like Rose would have had to this experience.  Some have criticized Rose but that is to forget the post-traumatic stress that she must have endured.  I particularly liked the Afterword / Declaration of Causes where Wein quotes Primo Levi that the “true witnesses to the atrocities…were the dead’ and then goes on to say that “Rose’s testimony is even further removed because [she] made it up.”  Like the first, this is a book that bears rereading because it is so complex.

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

I just left The Middlesteins, and I felt like I spent a lifetime at their homes in three days. The time spent with them was super intense. Attenberg’s writing about four generations of ImageEdie Middlestein’s family, her father an immigrant from Russia who got here so starved he could never get enough to eat and spent his life helping other immigrants from Russia, and her mother who loved her too much and fed her too much is so rich and visual. There’s a claustrophobia here that’s real as you get into the kishkas of this family. As Edie, whose weight is documented in chapter headings, begins to suffer from diabetes, and continues to kill herself by compulsively eating; her husband, Richard Middlestein, decides to walk out. He’s had enough; he can’t stop Edie from eating herself to death and he doesn’t want to see it happen. Besides, they haven’t had a good marriage in years. Their children Barry, his wife, Rachelle, and Robin, go to war against him and try to force him to fight for Edie, but Richard refuses. 

Surrounding this there’s a garish b’nai mitzvah being planned, Rachelle, Edie’s super thin daughter-in-law, is ordering family members to follow Edie round and force her to walk, etc, while purging her family’s menu of meat, sugar, well, anything tasty. All the while Edie is plowing through food, especially that at a favorite Chinese restaurant whose chef, Kenneth loves her. “…,and when Emily looked at her grandmother’s face, peachy And flushed and so clearly delighted, then watched as her grandmother leaned forward toward this man and fully, blatantly kissed him on the lips, like she didn’t even care that Emily was standing right there(with so many questions), Emily knew that there was no way her grandmother was ever going to go away to any fat farm or ever stop eating all that Chinese food, and Emily could not blame her because if she had a man who looked Like Kenneth looked at her grandmother and wanted to cook for her and kiss her all over her hands and cheeks and lips, she would stay with him forever…” P. 191-192 

In a scene reminiscent of the Yom Kippur Al Chet, Robin is listening to her sick mother “And with each story she told, each howling, moaning tale, it was as if she were striking her own heart again again and again with a closed fist. Either she was resuscitating it or she was destroying it. Either she was going to live or die. Robin did not know yet which it would be.”

There’s a lot going on. It’s not all about Edie. Chapters have interesting titles that I began to notice somewhere around “Male Pattern” which is about Barry and his incipient baldness, though no other men in the family are bald. Points of view vary, like

the cleverly narrated by the old friends of the Middlesteins who helped found the synagogue, about the b’nai mitzvah ceremony and party. There are chapters about each of the Middlesteins and looks into the future, that sometimes become dizzying

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

“My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying.” So begins this intense but redemptive novel. Uncle Finn was fourteen-year-old June Elbus’s first love. An artist, he seemed to understand her the way no one else did. Shy, with no friends, June liked to go into the woods behind her house and pretend to be “in another time.” She was entranced with the Middle Ages, and remembered her many trips to the Cloisters with her Uncle Finn as well as learning Mozart’s Requiem from him.  “Crocodile was a name Finn invented for me because he said I was like something from another time that lurked around, watching and waiting, before I made my mind up about things.  I loved when he called me that.”[p.7]Image

As Finn is dying from AIDS in 1987, June’s mother would drive June and her older sister Greta’s portrait. When he dies, a strange man comes to the funeral, but he is turned away. Days later he manages to contact June, and cautiously, she develops a friendship with the man who was Finn’s lover.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is layered with many plots. There’s the story of Greta’s jealousy over June’s special love for Finn and her own acting out, her extreme cruelty to June, some of which seemed over the top or melodramatic at times. There’s the story of their mother’s refusal to acknowledge Finn’s lover, Toby, even though she had known all along that Finn was gay. Her story is indeed sad, because she was so filled with spite over what she took as Finn’s abandonment of her.  I wasn’t thrilled with the cover; though many elements of the novel are captured in it, I think it’s a bit off putting and sensational.

Flora by Gail Godwin

ImageIsolated on a North Carolina mountain top in the summer of 1945, in the rather shabby home of her grandparents called the “Old One Thousand,” the narrator, eleven-year-old Helen and her mother’s cousin Flora are waiting till summer ends and Helen’s father returns. Helen’s mother died when she was three and her grandmother Nonie has just recently died, so much to Helen’s annoyance, her father called upon Flora, a naïve young woman to be Helen’s companion while he goes away for the summer to do war work at Oak Ridge, TN.

For the first week, before Flora arrives, Helen had a choice of three friends with whom to stay and chose the one with the huge house, pool and a cook over her friend Brian who wanted to be a classical actor and was taking elocution lessons with an English lady. She would have had more fun with Brian and when he contracted polio during the week, for going to a swimming hole, she felt an enormous amount of guilt. But as her friend Annie later tells her, “Other people don’t exist when we’re not with you. We’re toys or something. You play with them and examine them and then you put them on a shelf and go away. We don’t have lives, we’re just your playthings.”[p.104]

Reading Flora is disturbing despite the beautiful writing. Helen seems to not feel any guilt for ridiculing Flora, who seems like an inconvenience in her life, especially after her father calls and orders them not to go out or have visitors. Helen who had an “irreproachable grandmother” [p 99] writes, “I was reminded afresh that my biggest fear concerning Flora was how her lack of reserve would reflect on our family.” In the middle of the book the issue of remorse comes up, before we even know what is to become of the characters on the mountaintop. “When did remorse fall into disfavor? It was sometime during the second half of my life.” Helen states, “Remorse is wired straight to the heart… it went out of fashion around the same time that ‘Stop feeling guilty,’ and ’You’re too hard on yourself.’ And ‘You need to love yourself more’ came into fashion.” [p. 152]

In the end I was left grieving for Helen and the harm she caused as well as with many questions.  Gail Godwin has long been one of my favorite authors.  She didn’t disappoint with this novel; in fact it was full of surprises as most of her books.  In the end I was left grieving for Helen and the harm she caused as well as with many questions.   Helen’s tale is told from the point of view of an old lady looking back with remorse and written for her, Flora Waring.

My nurse today is a cyclist!

Still no cycling, or even hopes of, but I did plenty of workout in the gym and climbed three flights of stairs holding on to the rail with the physical therapist.  Then I had to show that I could get up from the floor.  Rene had to watch to get an idea of what he’d have to contend with.

I taught my nurse how to find journal articles at her library.  She’s doing a bachelor’s degree by distance so she didn’t get a class, but I can’t believe they don’t teach distance students how to do this.  Maybe there’s a career in this for me??  Turns out she and her husband are also cyclists,  though her husband is more hard core than her.  But she’s going to do her first all three days of the Make a Wish Ride,  Since she doesn’t like to clip in, they’re going to ride tandem.  I wanted to do the last 50 miles of that, but it will have to be another year.