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Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire - Elizabeth Wein This review is not going to have very much to do with the book.

Like (I suspect) most descendants of Holocaust survivors, I went through a phase at the end of my elementary school days when I read all the Holocaust books, trying desperately to make sense of what had so scarred my relatives but was only alluded to in my presence in half-heard scraps of conversation that quickly switched over to Yiddish whenever someone noticed I was within hearing range. Number the Stars, The Devil's Arithmetic, Maus, Night--if I could find it, I read it.

And then I got older, and the stories stopped being whispered and started being told, and I stopped needing literature about the Holocaust. I had all the details I ever wanted in front of me. (The only one I did go back to, time and again, was Maus--because it told me not just the story of the Holocaust but the story of how people dealt with the trauma decades after the fact, and that I still needed.)

In particular, I got pretty cynical about the industry of Holocaust fiction. The stories were so pretty. They had morals. They wrapped up in a neat little bow. They sounded nothing--nothing--like the tales I heard. Oh, they had their share of horror, but too often it felt like a cheap attempt at emotional manipulation. See how he suffers tragically! See how she perseveres!

...yeah, okay. I'm still pretty cynical about Holocaust fiction. I still don't read it. Which is why I really wish I'd spoiled myself for this book, because I think if I'd known it was going to be a concentration camp story I either would have skipped it entirely or (at least) gone in better prepared.

Don't get me wrong. It is a perfectly decent addition to the genre of teen Holocaust fiction. Wein's writing is (as always) lovely, while still being plausible for the scattered diary of a young woman. Rose is a relateable protagonist--a little naive but well-intentioned, a good All-American girl.

Note: not a good Jewish girl. This is a concentration camp novel in which Jews are almost entirely absent. I have very mixed feelings about that. On the one hand it's probably what made it possible for me to get through the book, given my own particular issues; it let me read it with more of an outsider's lens. On the other hand . . . while it's certainly true that many, many non-Jews suffered and died in the Holocaust, attempts to frame events as "the Holocaust wasn't just about Jews!" have, let us say, some less than savory political associations. In a work of constructed fiction (as opposed to, say, a memoir) I don't think leaving Jews out of the Holocaust is a choice you should lightly make.

And maybe Wein didn't make it lightly. I don't know. I would be interested in hearing her reasons. And I'm also interested in seeing what she writes next, because if this is going to be an ongoing series, I feel like the obvious next book is Anna Engel's book. And that is a story I'm both cautiously curious about and deeply reluctant to read.