In the 1980s, Terri Windling created the FAIRY TALE SERIES, a collection of stand-alone retellings for adults, featuring some of the best writers in the field. The series continued into the early 2000s and spans a wide variety of styles, tones, and interpretations of the tales. Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose (1992) was the sixth in the series and combines its fairy tale with an all-too-real historical horror. It won the Mythopoeic Award in 1992, and was nominated for the Nebula.
Becca, the heroine, is a young Jewish woman who grew up being told fairy tales by her grandmother, Gemma. Becca’s favorite was Sleeping Beauty, though Gemma didn’t tell it in the standard way. Now Gemma is dying, and on her deathbed, she tells Becca that she is Briar Rose, and charges her to find the truth behind the story.
Becca’s quest leads her to one of the most hellish corners of the Holocaust. It turns out that each element in Gemma’s version of “Sleeping Beauty” corresponds to a real person, place, or event in her life — there really was a prince, and a castle, and a kiss, but not quite how you might expect. It’s clear that the fairy tale was the only way Gemma could process what had happened to her, and the result is a moving look at the effects of trauma on memory. Another thing that stood out to me in my recent reread, during the narrative of one of Gemma’s friends, was the way fascism crept in slowly and was easy for some to ignore, until it was too late.
I also noticed this time that the prose has a hard-to-describe “old-fashionedness” about it. I’m hoping that Yolen did this intentionally to evoke a fairy-tale mood, rather than that the prevailing writing style has changed that much since the nineties, because the latter would probably mean that I’m old.
Becca’s sisters are so over-the-top awful as to seem cartoonish. This is another thing that might be intentional, though, because fairy tales often feature three siblings, only the youngest of whom proves himself or herself worthy.
There was apparently a kerfuffle some years back about sexual content in Briar Rose and whether it was appropriate for teen readers. I didn’t bat an eyelash at it, in large part because I simply didn’t think it was a young adult book at all. The FAIRY TALE SERIES was aimed at adults. However, I learned that Briar Rose has been used in schools to teach about the Holocaust, and I could see that working well — it’s an engaging and accessible look at the subject matter. So, if this is for a teenager, there is one sentence of sex in this book.
The story is heartbreaking, but ends on a note of quiet hopefulness. It’s not a long book, but it packs a punch. While the nineties stuff feels a little dated today (imagine waiting weeks for someone to send you a newspaper clipping in the mail!), Briar Rose is well worth a read.
I never read this when it came out but I will now. It sounds like a perfect time, and I enjoy retold fairy tales.
And there’s a striking new edition out–I forgot to mention it in my review, but it’s the main image that’s with the review.