Review: Briar Rose
Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, written as part of Terri Windling’s “Fairy Tale” series, is unlike any happy ever after Disney fairy tale. It certainly did not remind me of the Sleeping Beauty I grew up with. Yolen’s retelling of this classic story brings together ancient lore, Holocaust tragedy, and a modern quest.
Ever since she was a child, Rebecca has been enchanted by her grandmother Gemma’s stories about Briar Rose. But a promise Rebecca makes to her dying grandmother will lead her on a remarkable journey to uncover the truth of Gemma’s astonishing claim: I am Briar Rose. A journey that will lead her to unspeakable brutality and horror. But also to redemption and hope.–From Goodreads
I first became acquainted with Yolen when I read The Devil’s Arithmetic as a child. My family is Jewish, and I went to Hebrew school for several years. While I have never been the most devout Jew by any means, I have always acknowledged the hardships my family has had to endure because of their religion, and in that sense, have always felt a certain gratefulness for the religious freedom I am allowed. I used to read obsessively about certain topics; for some time, I researched the Titanic, then studied the Salem witch trials with great fervor, and then the Holocaust. I read everything I could get my hands on in my Hebrew school library, where they were willing to give us books that might normally not be given to a child. There was little censorship when it came to learning about our culture and history; after all, so much of Judaism is about remembering what happened. Somehow, Briar Rose slipped through my grasp at the time, but I’m glad I found it now.
Becca’s story of her journey to find out what happened to her grandmother during World War II is absolutely captivating. I read this in one sitting, breaking only for dinner. The novel alternates between Becca’s memories of her grandmother telling her the story of Briar Rose as a child, and her search for her grandmother’s own story, which takes her from America to Poland. Yolen’s research is meticulous, and her scholarship when it comes to fairy tales shines through.
The book begins with a perfect quote from Jack Zipes’ Spells of Enchantment:
“Both the oral and the literary forms of the fairy tale are grounded in history: they emanate from specific struggles to humanize bestial and barbaric forces, which have terrorized our minds and communities in concrete ways, threatening to destroy free will and human compassion. The fairy tale sets out to conquer this concrete terror through metaphors.”
Briar Rose is a painfully beautiful rendition of the Sleeping Beauty story, which serves as a metaphor for a fictionalized tale of a Holocaust survivor. This fairy tale succeeds in translating historical facts, which are too horrifically incomprehensible to fully grasp, into emotional and vivid personal stories that will ensure we never forget.