My Rating: 4 stars
I picked up a copy of Briar Rose by Jane Yolen on a recent trip to Play the Game Read the Story. Perhaps it was because of the location (it was sitting on a shelf full of sci-fi and fantasy) and the fact that the book is referred to as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty that I thought I was going to be reading a fantasy. I did read the back cover where it says the word Holocaust a couple of times, but for some reason I still thought it would be part fantasy. It turns out to be more of a mystery, an uncovering of a secret family history and a look at the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Since she was a baby, Becca has loved hearing her grandmother – Gemma – tell the story of Briar Rose. Just before Gemma dies, Becca promises her that she will unlock the truth behind her grandmother’s claim: I am Briar Rose. No one in the family knows Gemma’s real name or where she was born because she never talked about it. While Becca’s sisters suspect their grandmother might have been senile, Becca doesn’t believe this and is compelled to follow the leads that are found in a box kept secret by the grandmother until her death. Becca’s journey to find the truth about her grandmother brings her to Poland where she uncovers horrifying truths about the inhumanity of the Holocaust.
The first part of Briar Rose feels like a good mystery. Who is Gemma? Could she really be Briar Rose? Is the fairy tale real? Yolen alternates chapters to bring you back and forth between the present day and past moments of Becca’s childhood when Gemma tells the story to Becca and her sisters. This helps bring home the idea that the story of Briar Rose is Gemma’s story, whether or not it is truth or fairy tale. It also develops the main character, Becca, as the only one in the family who understands this.
Becca’s questions are answered when she finally finds a man willing to talk about Chelmno, the Nazi extermination camp, which Becca believes has something to do with her grandmother. The man isn’t just any man. He is a part of Gemma’s story, and when the voice of the book changes to his voice, the entire tone turns very dark. We see the horrors of the Holocaust through his eyes.
It is difficult to write about this book without giving too much away, but I will say that the author highlights the fact that there were several groups of people in addition to Jews who were targeted by the Nazis, including Gypsies and homosexuals. I imagine that many would like to censor a book like this, which is eerily ironic given its topic.
While Briar Rose ended up being something entirely different from what I was expecting, I am glad that I read it. Some might say the gruesomeness was unnecessary, but I think it is exactly the point. It is a difficult truth told through the vehicle of a fairy tale, which feels a little strange at times and a little bit genius at others.
The main warning I would have for Briar Rose is that the language complexity of the book felt like it could have fallen within the range of a middle-grade reader, but the content in the second section might be too disturbing for some at that age. I suggest reading it yourself before giving it to anyone younger than the book’s suggested minimum age of 16. It only took me approximately 9 hours total to read, and I’m a slow reader.
One aspect that might have been more developed, is the odd romance that starts to take shape between Becca and Stan, an editor at the newspaper she works for. It feels like Becca has a wall up in most of her relationships – except for the one with her grandmother. This makes sense when it comes to her sisters because it makes her relationship with Gemma stand out as something a little different, but it also makes the budding romance feel almost fake – like it is only there to move her from plot point to plot point. And, it feels like Stan starts to “drive the bus” a couple of times, when it really should have only ever come from Becca and her desire to find the truth.
Overall, I recommend Briar Rose as a read for teens and adults because the possibilities for human cruelty should never be forgotten.
To forget a holocaust is to kill twice.
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