Review: Briar Rose

Briar RoseBriar Rose by Jane Yolen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What an extraordinary story. I can’t believe I’d never read this before.

Yolen rolls back the iconic story of Sleeping Beauty to its roots – long before Disney or even the Victorian age – when it was a much darker, much grimmer (no pun intended) tale. Then, instead of going the predictable route and writing a fantasy novel, she overlays the fairy tale with a story about a woman tracing her ancestry back to the darkest parts of the Holocaust. The result is a gripping historical fiction novel that not only captivates the imagination but teaches about parts of the Holocaust that are seemingly forgotten.

The first 2/3 of the book go back and forth between the childhood and adulthood of Becca, the protagonist and granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. The childhood vignettes trace the grandmother’s telling and retelling of her version of Sleeping Beauty. As an adult, Becca is sifting through the mystery that her grandmother left behind after her death, trying to understand who she really was. Her quest takes her to a Polish concentration camp, from which no woman ever escaped – and yet which seems to be the beginning of her grandmother’s story. The last third of the book takes us back to WWII, showing the Holocaust through the eyes of a “pink triangle” prisoner. I won’t go into more detail lest the ending be spoiled.

Briar Rose is, on top of everything else (historical fiction, geneaological quest story, fairy tale retelling) a delicately lovely romance on multiple fronts. Romantic love, filial love, courtly love – all play a role.

This is technically, I believe, a YA book. I just finished re-reading Night and love the idea of offering this as an optional supplementary book, particularly for girls who may have been put off by the predominant male point of view of Night, but a teacher would need to tread lightly as the material in the last third of the book is, at times, rather adult in nature. It certainly taught me things I’d never learned about the Holocaust, and illuminated a window into a survivors’ perspective that I’d never considered. Although I’ve only watched parts of it, I believe this book would also make an excelltnt companion piece to the movie Defiance.

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