To find the inspiration for Elizabeth Wein’s latest novel, Rose Under Fire (Hyperion, Sept.), one need look no further than the shelves of her bookcase. Wein wanted to know more about Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp, after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. She hit upon her main character Rose’s motivation for writing down everything she could remember about having been imprisoned after reading And I Am Afraid of My Dreams by Wanda Póltawska, a Polish survivor of the camps. Her fascination with women who were dropped behind enemy lines was stoked by The Women Who Lived for Danger, a collective biography about some of World War II’s female secret agents. Many did not live to tell their own stories.
And then there’s Wein’s own Code Name Verity, a Printz Honor book and winner of the 2013 Edgar Award. She was not yet finished writing it when she realized she was far from done with the subject matter. She tried writing a second novel with the same main character and... poetry got in the way.
“I needed a new character because I wanted to include poems and I couldn’t make [the main character from Verity] be a poet,” Wein says. “She’s just not that kind of girl. She was also, by that point, just too old for this story.”
Instead, the Rose of the title is 18, a civilian volunteer, ferrying a Royal Air Force plane from France to England when she is captured by the Nazis. Rose is American (last name: Justice), a recent high school graduate who’s been flying since age 12, when she was taught by her father, owner of a flight school in central Pennsylvania.
Harrisburg, the state capital, is where Wein grew up, and where, at age eight, she first encountered information about concentration camps, in a comic book adaptation of Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. She read the book itself a few years later, and then drew her own illustrated version of Boom’s memoir about hiding Jews from the Nazis at the family’s watch shop in Holland. “I was obsessed with her story, frankly,” Wein says. “Something about how they managed to maintain hope resonated with me.”
It was in Harrisburg, too, that Wein developed an addiction to poetry. “All through high school, I thought of myself as a poet,” she recalls. “I didn’t really stop adding to the repertory of poems I could recite until I hit 30.” When she read Micheline Maurel’s account of her imprisonment at Ravensbrück, she felt an immediate kinship. “There was a Czech girl who loved [Micheline’s] poetry and swapped her bread for poems,” Wein said. “When I read that I thought, ‘Finally, I found a reason for my useless ability to recite yards and yards of poetry. Now I know how it would save my life in a concentration camp.’ ” And how it might save Rose’s.
Wein wrote many of the poems that appear in Rose Under Fire while at Ravensbrück last summer, when she attended a conference on generational memory held on the grounds of the camp, now a memorial site. “I wrote Rose’s poem about spilling the soup sitting on the steps outside the kitchen. There was something about being in that place that helped me. I loved writing the poems, but they were hard to write.”
It was also hard to bury herself in the research it took to write Rose’s story. “It took me a long time to read the survivor accounts because I was afraid,” Wein said. In the novel, Rose is housed in Block 32, with a group known as the “Rabbits,” Polish prisoners who were victims of horrific medical experimentation by Nazi doctors but who demonstrated an astounding resolve to try to outlive their tormentors.
“You heart is going to break into a hundred pieces,” says Wein’s editor, Catherine Onder, of the book. “But it will be put back together again.”
And though Wein worries about having created an “imitation of a survivor account,” the basis for creating new accounts of what happened in Germany in the 1940s is rooted in the wishes of those who suffered. Unspeakable atrocities occurred at Ravensbrück, but the victims’ greatest worry was that no one would even know, and that their persecutors would go unpunished. That did not happen.
“The refrain in the book is, ‘Tell the world,’ ” Wein said. “And that was the actual refrain of these women. I didn’t make that up.”