Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

8 Mar
I stumbled upon Briar Rose for two reasons: I’d heard of Jane Yolen, and I’m fairly certain I’ve read some of her YA in the past, and I’d also heard great things about The Fairy Tale Series edited by Terri Windling. Windling has been a terrific proponent of the urban fantasy genre, and fantasy in general as an editor at Tor and Ace. In The Fairy Tale Series, she worked with authors like Yolen, Pamela Dean, and Charles de Lint. (I mentioned this earlier in a brief blurb about Briar Rose, but I have tried and failed twice to get into Dean’s effort in this series, Tam Lin. What’s wrong with me? This book seems to be universally loved by bloggers whose opinions I usually jive with. I’ll give it one more try, but if I still don’t get absorbed by it, I may just have to chalk it up.)

Briar Rose was very beautiful, very sad, and deeply thoughtful. I love these retellings of fairy tales, and how creatively authors use them to illustrate different ideas. Yolen used the tale of Sleeping Beauty as an illustration for the Holocaust – Becca’s grandmother Gemma was a Jewish refugee from Poland during WWII, but Becca’s family has no real idea where she came from, what her real name is, or why she repeatedly tells her grandchildren the story of Sleeping Beauty throughout their lives. On her deathbed, Gemma reveals to Becca that she IS Sleeping Beauty, or Briar Rose. Becca, a journalist, is not satisfied with this and decides to investigate her grandmother’s life and unlock the past. After some sleuthing at home, eventually Becca makes her way to Poland and learns what really happened to her grandmother.

Yolen interweaves the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale throughout the book, oftentimes alternating chapters of the tale with chapters of the main action in the plot. I loved the idea of using the mist that comes over Briar Rose’s castle to insinuate the rising evil of Hitler’s Germany. At times, this book was hard to read because it doesn’t shy away from some of the atrocities. I learned a lot about the partisan fighter movement during WWII, the insidious way an entire nation of people can be taken over by frenzy and national pride, and even one of the hardest things for me to understand: how people, even those persecuted, could turn a blind eye as long as they did. The last quarter of the book can get pretty upsetting, but Yolen’s knack with words (there was a beautiful image she used to describe someone dying from a gunshot, but I realize it’s a little rough to pull out of context, so I’m refraining) and the slow reveal of Gemma’s mystery get you past the upset. Plus, it’s good to get a little upset sometimes, you know? It’s important not to forget the past.


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