Author: Jane Yolen
Genre: Historical, Fairy Tale, Mystery, Young Adult
Publication Date: August 1992 (original)
Paperback: 239 pages (reprint)
A powerful retelling of Sleeping Beauty that is “heartbreaking and heartwarming.”
An American Library Association “100 Best Books for Teens”
An American Library Association “Best Books for Young Adults”
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.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel, but part of Tor’s Fairy Tale series
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: Jane Yolen is an author I have loved since I was in middle school – from her fantasy novels to her science fiction to her short fiction. I also love a book she wrote called The Devil’s Arithmetic, which is a speculative fiction novel in which a modern Jewish American girl finds herself transported to 1940s Poland, and the horrific experiences that follow. When I stumbled upon this book at random in a Borders closing sale (RIP, Borders), I knew I immediately had to have it.
For as long as she can remember, Becca has been enamored, frightened, and captivated by her Grandmother Gemma’s favorite story – that of Briar Rose, and the awful sleeping curse placed on her and all her people by the cruel fairy with black boots and emblazoned with silver eagles. As the years pass, while Becca’s sisters start their own families and tire of Gemma’s Sleeping Beauty story, Becca remains ever faithful and dedicated to her grandmother – even when Gemma’s grasp on reality seems to be slipping as she claims that she is Briar Rose. On her deathbed, Gemma makes Becca swear to find Gemma’s castle, and the truth behind Gemma’s life. With a box of trinkets and a fairy tale as her only clues to her grandmother’s past, Becca starts her investigation into Gemma’s life. What she finds leads her on the path to a small town in 1940s Poland, to a place where Gemma’s fairy tale intertwines with threads of memory and truth.
“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.”
- Jack Zipes, Spells of Enchantment
So begins Briar Rose, with this epigraph from Jack Zipes – and how incredibly fitting and haunting this truth is. When I picked up Briar Rose, I was expecting a fairy tale. A fantasy novel. A dark fantasy, to be sure, but something firmly rooted in the soil of speculative fiction. I was not expecting this haunting, heartbreaking tale of memory, family, and the Holocaust, using Sleeping Beauty as a very loose metaphor. Like many young adults, I attended elementary and middle schools that assigned works of historical fiction that examined the brutality and horror of the Holocaust – novels like Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars or Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, or of course the haunting autobiographical The Diary of Anne Frank. As a young reader, it is hard to grasp the enormity, the sheer scale of death and the atrocity of the Holocaust – but books like these help give a tangible perspective of such madness and genocide. They also allow us to contemplate and remember this unconscionably dark chapter of human history.
Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose is another such book. It is a book that forces us to confront and to remember, told through the eyes of a 23-year-old that uncovers the hidden past of her beloved grandmother. As Becca strings together the clues left behind by Gemma in the handful of documents, keepsakes, and the fable Gemma never stopped telling, the full picture of Gemma’s past comes into focus. It’s a past which leads Becca to the small Polish town of Chelmno, a place whose picturesque, quiet serenity belies the atrocities that occurred there.
Briar Rose is a contemplative novel that tells the story not only of Gemma, not only of the Jews taken to the camps – it’s also about the Pink Triangle laws and the homosexual males so reviled by the Nazis. It’s about the gypsies, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and all the other “undesirables” sent en masse to extermination camps like Chelmno. It’s also the contemporary story of Becca, a young woman learning about her grandmother and finding her own voice in the process. While the writing for this book might not be the most refined and is quickly dated (imagine a genealogical search that does not involve the internet, in a time when the Soviet Union was still unified, and when hunting down information leads and passports took weeks, even months, to pursue), it is a powerful and resonant story.
From the onset, Briar Rose has an air of sadness and distance, and learning about Gemma’s past and all that she has endured and her fixation with the Briar Rose fairy tale is poignant and heartbreaking in its stark truth: Gemma tells her fairy tale over and over again throughout the novel in a series of flashbacks, because it is her past. Is Briar Rose a fairy tale? It is and it isn’t. It is allegory, and it is truth. It is powerful, and it is raw. Even if Gemma may not remember her past, her story is uncovered from the fog that ensorcells the princess and her kingdom, coaxed awake by Becca so many decades later. Though Gemma’s tale is one of indescribable horror, it has its own happy ending.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
“Gemma, tell your story again,” Shana begged, putting her arms around her grandmother and breathing in that special smell of talcum and lemon that seemed to belong only to her.
“Which one?” Gemma asked, chopping the apples in the wooden bowl.
“You know,” Shana said.
“Yes—you know,” Sylvia added. Like her sister, she crowded close and let the talcum-lemon smell almost overwhelm her.
Baby Rebecca in the high chair banged her spoon against the cup. “Seepin Boot. Seepin Boot.”
Shana made a face. Even when she had been little herself she’d never spoken in baby talk. Only full sentences; her mother swore to it.
“Seepin Boot.” Gemma smiled. “All right.”
The sisters nodded and stepped back a pace each, as if the story demanded their grandmother’s face, not just her scent.
“Once upon a time,” Gemma began, the older two girls whispering the opening with her, “which is all times and no times but not the very best of times, there was a castle. And in it lived a king who wanted nothing more in the world than a child.
“ ‘From your lips to God’s ears,’ the queen said each time the king talked of a baby. But the years went by and they had none.”
“None, none, none,” sang out Rebecca, banging her spoon on the cup with each word.
“Shut up!” Shana and Sylvia said in unison.
Gemma took the spoon and cup away and gave Rebecca a slice of apple instead. “Now one day, finally and at last and about time, the queen went to bed and gave birth to a baby girl with a crown of red hair.” Gemma touched her own hair in which strands of white curled around the red like barbed wire.
“The child’s face was as beautiful as a wildflower and so the king named her…”
“Briar Rose,” Sylvia and Shana breathed.
“Briar Rose,” repeated Rebecca, only not nearly so clearly, her mouth being quite full of apple.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Shadowcry by Jenna Burtenshaw
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