Jane Yolen,
Briar Rose
(Tor, 1992)

It seems only right that Jane Yolen, one of the world's leading makers of fairy-tale magic, should write a novel for Terri Windling's Fairy Tale series, a collection of modern retellings of age-old tales. Yolen creates a stunning masterpiece, combining the eerie enchantment of "Briar Rose" (also known as "Sleeping Beauty in the Wood") with the terrifying history of the Holocaust.

Becca Berlin grew up listening to her grandma -- Gemma -- tell the tale of Sleeping Beauty, a story about castles and thorns and mists. For years, Becca and her family thought it was just a story, until Gemma starts insisting that the princess is her. On her deathbed, she extracts a promise from Becca that her past will be uncovered and the story will come true.

Becca's sisters dismiss Gemma's story as the ramblings of a senile old woman, but Becca feels strangely compelled to break through the mystery that surrounds Gemma's past like a hedge of thorns surrounding an ancient tower. A box of photos, newspaper clippings and entry forms, along with a man's ring, are the only clues Becca has with which to begin her search -- a search that will take her to Poland and back in time to the dark terror of the Holocaust.

Briar Rose moves through several layers of storytelling technique. The chapters alternate between episodes of Becca's search for Gemma's past and lyrical "memories" of Gemma telling the story of Briar Rose. Near the end of the novel, Becca's travels enfold an account of the lives of several partisans in the German forests.

Rather than focusing on the well-known concentration camps such as Auschwitz or Dachau, Yolen directs her attention to the Polish town of Chelmno, bravely bringing its terrors to the attention of readers world-wide. She firmly addresses the full ramifications of the Holocaust on people then and now.

In some ways, the story this novel is about is more important than the story it actually tells. Becca's search for her grandmother's -- and ultimately her own -- past flows off the page like a stream of running water, quick, fresh and lively. Yet the story of the Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, particularly the way in which it is presented to reveal the tragedies of the Holocaust, creates deeper resonances than the live action of the novel. Gemma's tale echoes the darker current just below the surface of the stream that reaches far deeper than one might suspect.

Yet it is because of this resonating current that Becca's pilgrimage engages us as readers. For a moment, we almost become Becca. Despite whatever connections we may or may not have to this dark period in history, there is a part of us that is only able to comprehend the true enormity of such stories when they are hidden in depths of older tales, for these old tales exist in the dualities of light and dark, pain and joy, life and death.

Jane Yolen's Briar Rose speaks with unflinching and brutal honesty. It tells the truth -- as much as fiction can. Yet that truth reveals one much deeper -- the ability of people and stories to overcome and endure.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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