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Briar Rose

Jane Yolen is a deft writer, and in Briar Rose, she punches me in the guts. Repeatedly. Then the face, then back to the guts. I remember picking it out at the library, thinking, Oh yes, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. How nice. Surely it’s not actually about Nazis.

But it is. The events of the story are sometimes similar to the folktale, but Yolen’s version is tainted with a dark, gritty new perspective. This Briar Rose hits closer to Grimm’s side of the house than Disney’s, and I’m thankful for that. I would rather taste something harsh and true than saccharine whitewash. All through the book, I thought about the bitter herbs of Passover, the ones which bring back the memory of Israel’s suffering. They’re a decent parallel.

Even as I read, I kept expecting fantasy to pop back in, for the misty plot on the river to be magically silent and not just a grave, and for Gemma to really be the Briar Rose of fable. I was expecting the story to act like Mike Mignola’s Hell Boy, which is fun even when it’s gritty, and uses the historical context as a backdrop for fantasy. But this is all real. In some ways, Gemma is Briar Rose, and her kingdom is cursed with sleep, but it’s not magical, hundred years sleep, and the princess isn’t waiting for true love. No prince can save the town; it was all destroyed decades ago and nothing can bring it back.

Yolen writes about the Holocaust well, in a way that can still move me, even though I’ve heard it all before, many times. And, because I continued to hope it was fantasy and perhaps some solution would fall ex machina, that the story would leave reality at some point, and perhaps become like Enchanted (by Orson Scott Card), and surely we could all get along and live happily ever after, the weight of the truth hit me harder than if I was reading, say, Night, or Maus, or any other purely historical retelling. Perhaps it was just my perception of what the book was, perhaps it was because I got the book along with The Devil’s Arithmetic (also by Yolen) and that book has considerable fantasic aspects, but maybe she meant to lead me down that path, putting the history in mythological terms as she did. Regardless, it blindsided me. Much needed.

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