Tor Books, November 1993
Tor Teen, March 1992
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen was my second Book Club pick for my Club of 2. Originally published in 1993, Briar Rose is part of the Windling’s Fairy Tale series which is a collection of novels inspired by classic fairy tales. Yolen chose the story of Briar Rose (also known as Sleeping Beauty) and links it to the Holocaust. That link, plus the fact that it is marketed as a young adult novel series, is what made me choose this read.
Some of you may know, but one of my literary interests is Holocaust novels and memoirs. If something is remotely related to the Holocaust, I snatch it up. I was beyond excited when a Holocaust course was being offered my second to last semester in grad school because it gave me the chance to expand my knowledge and grasp the lingo for discussing such material. My first semester of grad school, I had the privilege of taking a course in Fairy Tales and was surprised to learn they aren’t what Disney taught us. A little background knowledge, if you will?
Fairy Tales were originally meant for an adult audience only. They didn’t, in fact rarely, have a happy ending and discussed such things as incest, murder, and rape. The Grimm Brothers are often credited as being the first fairy tale-ers, however they adopted and collected fairy tales from before the 17th century. In fact, because fairy tales began as an oral tradition, it is actually hard to pinpoint their origin. Over time, the tales were altered to remove some of the more frightening elements to make them more appropriate for a younger audience. Disney then took these adoptions of adoptions of adoptions and adapted them once more to fit the children’s movie scene. Thought to be wonderful movies to entertain the masses, Disney’s movies are actually riddled with sexism (sorry to ruin it). If you listen closely to the lyrics, you’ll hear themes such as male domination, women’s obedience, and beauty trumps brains. For example, my favorite Disney movie is Beauty and the Beast. I loved it since I was little because Belle had dark hair like mine, loved to read, and was imaginative. However, as I got older I realized Belle was made fun of for being smart, catered to her Dad’s every need, and abandoned her reading to be a princess. Gaston sings of his ability to dominate Belle and even though Belle resists, she doesn’t exactly opt for the independent life. Instead, she shacks up with the Beast, uses her feminine charms to turn him into a proper man, and only shows a passing excitement at the library he gives her access to. Gotta love the Beast. But I digress… back to Briar Rose…
When I learned that Briar Rose was a combination of three of my favorite genres, I thought SCORE! I admit that after reading the first few pages I began to think, crap, but I pushed through (a push through that lasted nearly a month for this 224 page large font book). It was just so hard to get into! I understand that as a young adult novel, Yolen has to write towards that audience. Normally that is an angle I thoroughly enjoy. However, I felt she spent too much time on setting up the story and not enough time in the actual plot. Briar Rose begins in the small town of Holyoke where we meet Rebecca Berlin and her older sisters Sylvia and Shana. The girls grew up hearing the tale of Briar Rose from their grandmother, Gemma, who kept the reasons behind the tale a closely guarded secret. As Gemma’s health begins to rapidly deteriorate, Becca makes it her mission to find out her family’s history. Becca promises Gemma on her deathbed that she will uncover the secret.
The second half of the novel follows Becca as she travels to Poland and learns of her family’s involvement in the Holocaust. This is when the novel got good. I don’t know if it is my devotion to Holocaust literature or if the novel simply picked up here, but I was captivated. The tale Yolen weaves of how Gemma came to America and why the name księżniczka crops up is fascinating and leaves you wondering, could this really happen and, if so, how many times did it?
My overall impression of the book is one I wouldn’t necessarily recommend because of its slow entry. My book club partner, however, enjoyed the read. I give it a 3. Read her review here!