(I'm the doofus on the left with my eyes closed)
In the end, only about 20 people showed up to listen to Wein (including her aunt and uncle), so it was an amazingly intimate experience; she sat up on a little stage and the rest of us sat on the floor in front of her and soaked up everything she had to say. Then she signed our books, taking time to talk to each of us and, yes, to let us have our pictures taken with her (closed eyes optional). It was SO worth the four hours on the road.
Now for the book review. I don't feel as skittish about spoilers as I did when reviewing VERITY because, unlike that book, ROSE contains few mysteries or plot twists. It's the fairly straightforward story of 18-year-old Rose Moyer Justice from Pennsylvania, whose father owns a flight school and who taught her to fly when she was 12, and who is inspired - in part by a visit to her school from Edna St. Vincent Millay - to assist in the war effort by traveling to England and volunteering as an auxiliary transport pilot. Despite the ominous crash-landing and death of a fellow ATA pilot with which the book begins, Rose sees what she's doing as a bit of an adventure, until the day in late September 1944 when the plane she's flying is intercepted by the enemy and forced to land in Germany. At first the Germans aren't sure what to do with her, but their uncertainty doesn't last long. Rose is shipped off to Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp for female political prisoners.
As Wein clarified in her remarks today, the explicit purpose for the existence of Ravensbruck was to starve and/or work the women prisoners until they died, thereby clearing the way for the next influx. Toward the end of 1944 everyone, including the prisoners and their German guards and administrators, knew that the Allies were winning the war and that it would only be a matter of time until the concentration camps would be liberated. The goal of the prisoners, then, became to cling to life by any means they could until that day came. Their purpose was twofold: to achieve their own personal survival, and to be able to reveal to the world what they had endured. But as time ran short, the Nazis in charge of the Camp were becoming more desperate and more dangerous. "Selections" of inmates to be executed became more frequent. And, for the first time at Ravensbruck, a gas chamber was constructed.
Soon after her arrival, Rose learns of one special category of prisoner among her fellow Camp inmates. The Rabbits were a group of 80 or so women, mostly Polish, who had been subjected to medical pseudo-experiments so horrifying that all of the Ravensbruck prisoners in effect circled the wagons around them. The Rabbits' bodies were living evidence. Therefore they, more than any of the other tens of thousands of half-dead prisoners, had to be kept alive. Not easy. I learned from Wein today that when Ravensbruck was liberated by the Russians in the spring of 1945, the average weight of the survivors was 66 pounds.
Many thousands of women died at Ravensbruck, despite the astonishing ingenuity of some who found the courage and the wits to fight back. Rose Justice found her strength in an unexpected place. She kept her spirit alive, and fed the spirits of others, by writing poetry.
Wein did prodigious research for this book; I have no doubt that the paper and online bibliographies she provides at the end barely scratch the surface. Her website provides further research tools for readers, and between that and the book, she has stunningly achieved what she set out to do. She has told the world.
And now: the giveaway contest. I bought an extra copy of ROSE UNDER FIRE at the bookstore and got it autographed, and I'm ready to give it away to a lucky winner. Here are the two things you have to do in order to enter: (1) become an official follower of my blog - it's not that onerous, I promise. I don't post often enough to be annoying; and (2) leave a comment telling me something about World War II that I don't already know. This second task is totally doable. I'm not a historian and there are a vast number of things I don't know about the War. If you don't think you know anything worth telling, then do a little research, bearing in mind the adage that if we don't study history we will be doomed to repeat it. You have until next Saturday, the 28th, at midnight East Coast time, to submit your entry. I'll announce a winner the next day.
And if you don't enter, or enter but don't win, read ROSE UNDER FIRE anyway, which is really the point here. It's a harrowing, inspiring, unforgettable experience you should not miss.