Monday, March 17, 2014

Häftling einundfünfzigtausendvierhundertachtundneunzig (Prisoner 51,498)

Not quite a year ago, I listened to Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity.  I had already eye-read it, but enjoyed it so much (not only for the vivid depiction of a female friendship, but for its puzzle qualities) that I knew a listen would not be a hardship. It was wonderful in audio form as well.  So, when Wein's "companion" to Verity was published last year, I knew that I wanted to listen to it as well. Rose Under Fire is very different from Verity, and suffers in comparison. I felt oppressed by the violence and the emotional hardships that Rose Justice experiences; there wasn't much of a payoff for all the pain. Is it simply too real?

First things first: Rose Under Fire brings back our beloved pilot Maddie Brodart who survived the events of Verity and continues her work with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), flying military planes and important passengers to air bases around England and -- once the D-Day Invasion takes hold -- northern France. She (thankfully) marries Julie's brother, Jamie.

But this isn't Maddie's story -- it's Rose's. Rose Justice is a 19-year-old American pilot with the ATA, and in the fall of 1944, she's assigned a flight in northern France. On her way, she gets distracted by a "doodlebug," the V-1 flying bombs (or what we might call a drone today) which were terrorizing southern England. She "tips" the V-1 with her wing, disabling it, but afterwards finds herself lost over German territory. Two Luftwaffe pilots draw near and firmly compel her to land. Once she's surrendered the plane and her identity papers, Rose is put in a truck for transfer to the Ravensbrück "work" camp. Assigned a number, which she must embroider onto her too-small "uniform" (a cast-off [undoubtedly from a Jew] dress), she is put to work in the Siemens plant on the perimeter of the camp, but when she realizes that she is assembling doodlebugs she resists. After a severe beating, where she is so injured she cannot sit down, she is reassigned to barracks where she meets the "rabbits," who befriend and protect her.

The rabbits were 74 Polish women imprisoned at Ravensbrück for various crimes (but not for being Jewish) near the beginning of the war. Nazi doctors (and they weren't all doctors) used these women as lab rats, performing various medical experiments on them, ostensibly to determine what techniques would work on battlefield injuries. Many did not survive, but an astonishing number left the camp when the Russians liberated it in 1945. (At her website, Wein has done amazing work memorializing these women.)

Rose means to tell the story of the camp, but when she makes her daring escape (by plane, naturally) as the Germans are frantically gassing as many inmates as possible, she is so emotionally wounded by her imprisonment (what we would call post-traumatic stress) that she needs all her courage to attend the Doctors Trial at Nuremberg in 1946 or the special Ravensbrück trial that followed a few months later. It is her fellow internee, the youngest rabbit, Roza -- imprisoned at 14 and permanently scarred -- whose bravery finally helps Rose to return to Germany.

The story is as ghastly as my synopsis implies, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the inspiring core of the novel: the prisoners. Wein introduces us to at least a dozen vividly portrayed women -- not just the Polish rabbits, but a French novelist, a Russian aviatrix, and an American-educated camp guard with a fondness for Boston cream pie. There's not much suspense to their story, however, because Rose is telling us her story after she has escaped Ravensbrück. This makes the chapters taking place at the camp feel relentless. Yes, these women cared for one another, saved one another, but their suffering is hard to bear. It's equally hard to listen to Rose, hiding herself away in a room at the Ritz in Paris in the aftermath.

Rose is journaling her story, both before she ends up at the concentration camp and after she escapes, because she promised to "tell the world." She's a poet who frequently treats us to her poetry in her journals, which I found pretty labored (but I don't consider myself a very good judge of poetry). In a moment of true art, though, Rose crafts a mnemonic poem listing all the names of the rabbits, a poem that ensures that each will be remembered, if only by name.

The audiobook is narrated by Sasha Pick. She reads Rose's first person story in (as it says on her webpage) a "bright, engaging and smiley" narration that is quite perfect for a 19-year-old girl on her own for the first time and doing what she loves. There's authentic emotion in her reading and she gives the story a skilled and varied pace. She rattles off German with confidence, and I liked the broad Northern English accent she gives Maddie.  There are a number of opportunities for Pick to sing and she sings beautifully.

However, once Rose lands in Ravensbrück, the narration starts to fray a bit. Pick's breezy style doesn't really portray Rose's fear and despair. The eastern European accents all sound forced. To add insult, the author has provided very specific instructions for the speaking voice of Roza -- high in register and screechy -- and Pick takes this direction to heart. And, oh god, it's truly dreadful to listen to. Roza is a very complex character -- as the youngest rabbit, she should evoke nurture and protectiveness in the older inmates, but she's spoiled and reckless and very hard to like. Clearly, she's damaged both in mind and body, but knowing her only through her voice makes hard to feel sympathetic.

Pick also gives some English words an English accent, not an American one. The one I remember is STRAW-bury not strawberry. There was also a very odd pronunciation of John Deere: John Dearie. I don't think a girl from near Hershey, Pennsylvania would have ever gotten that so very wrong.

The audiobook also includes an afterword read by Wein herself. She reads with passion -- the story of the rabbits is clearly important to her. "I have tried" [to tell the world], she writes.

Rose Under Fire received the Schneider Family Book Award this January, for the teen book that best "embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience." This was a bit of a head-scratcher for a while as Schneider books are usually a little more obvious in their disabilities. But Rose Justice's PTSD is pretty harrowing, so ultimately a good choice.

[The photograph of women at Ravensbrück is from the German Federal Archives and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[Ravensbrück rabbit Jadwiga Dzido is showing her damaged leg to the tribunal at the Nuremberg Trial. She was scarred in sulfanilamide experiments where bacteria was introduced into wounds which were then "treated" with the drugs. It was retrieved from the Jewish Virtual Library.]

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
Narrated by Sasha Pick
Bolinda Audio, 2013.  11:43

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