Monday, March 7, 2011

"What She Read" Review: Briar Rose (briefly)

It was kismet:  First, I noticed as I was commenting on a Facebook post that a Jane Yolen had also participated in that thread, and thought:  Is that the same Jane Yolen whose writing I've read about but never sampled?  It was.

Then I saw her Briar Rose recommended by a blogger on Sarcastic Female Literary Circle as a YA read with a strong female lead.

And I had $20 to trade at the used bookstore when I looked down at a pile in the current Young Adult Fiction section to see this cover.  Done deal.

So what is Briar Rose?  The myth of Sleeping Beauty translated into a fiction about the Holocaust.  Surprising.  And beautiful.

Jane Yolen's modern take on a classic tale offers a depth not often found in many current day remixes of old myths. 

She chose to go this genre one better, offering up her formidable skills as a storyteller - you're in the palm of her hand from page one - to shed new light on a rarely-viewed aspect of Polish history during World War II.  In so doing, Yolen honors people who might otherwise have been forgotten and reclaims the Sleeping Beauty tale for a new generation of men and women.

It's the story of Becca Berlin who makes a promise to her dying Gemma that she will seek out Gemma's murky history and bring it back to her family.  Really, that's it.  Except: There are actually two settings (Massachusetts in the 90's & Poland in the '30's and '40's) and three layered stories here:  Gemma's retelling of Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty, Becca's modern hero's journey to discover Gemma's true history, and then Josef's story of survival in Poland during the Holocaust that reveals his version of that history. 

They're woven together naturally and skillfully: any reader growing up today or familiar with a variety of fictional forms will have no problem moving among these tales, all told with confidence by a master. 

I highly recommend it.  And I think it might be my first five star YA book of this blog.

What'll I do:
1. Friend Yolen on FB and take a look at her other YA works. I'd like to keep in touch with her, esp. with regard to supporting young women in their personal development.
2. Recommend this book to my teacher-friends & book group.
3. Research and read the "real" version of the Sleeping Beauty tale, which is one I missed growing up.  Perhaps check out some feminist perspectives on it too...

MFB, wide awake,

And it wins a perfect score for the Bechtel Test:
1. Two or more women?  Yes, a grandma (Gemma), three sisters (Shana-Sylvia-and-Becca constitute a Regin-Goneril-Cordelia-ish triad, lite version as the older two sisters are merely obnoxious rather than deadly), and a best female friend, plus a number of ancillary male and female characters.
2. Do they converse for more than a minute or two?  Yes.  They talk a lot about history, friendship, family.
3. Do they converse about subjects other than men?  Absolutely.  They are seeking to understand Becca's family history, so little of the story focuses on romance. (OK, a little, but it's in the backdrop, not a central issue.)

A caution:  Do know that even though the book is considered young adult fiction, Yolen does not evade or avoid sexuality - a trend now typical in YA lit..  In fact, one character's sexual acts are described pretty specifically.  Just a heads-up for younger readers.


Stephanie M. Hasty said...

this sounds beautiful. i've never heard of it and must have missed it on llevinso post. lovely, thanks! :D

Dana KBS said...

I read this one years ago and thought it was amazing--but I should definitely revisit. Yolen's work (have you seen her picture books...?) is varied and surprising. I'd rank this one up with Beauty by Robin McKinley for fairy tale re-envisionings...and I've read a ton of them. An early obsession with our edition of The Brothers Grimm (with Arthur Rackham color plates) is my inspiration.

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