Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose

Once upon a time there was a princess who fell asleep when the evil fairy in black leather and silver eagles blew a mist over all her people; a prince came along and kissed the breath of life back into the princess…thus does Jane Yolen weave the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty in with the facts of the Holocaust. Well, some of the facts anyway; as with much fiction this is told from the point of view of only one person, and that one with not much in the way of political ties.

As the book begins, Gemma1 is telling her three granddaughters her version of the fairy tale, Briar Rose, the only fairy tale and the only version she’ll tell. The main action begins when from her deathbed, Gemma extracts a promise from Becca, the youngest of the three sisters, that she will find the “castle in the sleeping wood”. With little to go on, as the family has no information about Gemma prior to her arrival in the United States, Becca sets off to track down her grandmother’s “castle” in the face of disbelief from her family; they believe that Gemma was simply sliding into dementia and had started believing that her fairy tale was in fact reality. After a lot of legwork and a couple of implausibly coincidental chance meetings, Becca discovers that there is, in fact, a kernel of truth underlying her grandmother’s repetition of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.

I have to confess that I’m a little disappointed in this one: it’s not the best work of fiction on the Holocaust out there, although there aren’t many I can think of for the high school age range, and specifically it’s not Jane Yolen’s best work on the subject—The Devil’s Arithmetic strikes me as being better written. The characters seem a bit like paper cutouts, with the exception of Josef Potocki; the Polish guide seems impossibly cheerful, and the sisters (with reason) too much like the nasty stepsisters in every other fairy tale. In particular, I find it too much of a fortuitous coincidence that Becca would chance to meet the one person in all of Poland who could confirm every detail of her grandmother’s tale. Twenty years on, the book is beginning to serve as much as a description of Eastern Bloc countries under communism as it is a fictionalization of the Holocaust; it won’t be too long before the protagonist paying her Polish translator/guide in Levi’s rather than currency will require almost as much explanation as what happened to the grandmother during World War II. Shrug.

Charitably, I’d say read the modern portions as a fairy tale as well as the Holocaust portions; it’s not as if most fairy tale characters are all that well developed and three dimensional either.This was written as part of a series of modern retellings of fairy tales, and it reads a bit awkwardly. That said, I am glad there’s a book on the Holocaust to bridge the gap between The Devil’s Arithmetic and Elie Wiesel’s works.

What to read next would depend on whether you like retellings of fairy tales or books on the Holocaust. If the former, I’d suggest Robin McKinley’s works, though they don’t have the ties to reality that this book does and if the latter, Maus I/II and Elie Wiesel’s works.

1short for Grandmother, as the oldest sister couldn’t pronounce that when young


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