Briar Rose mashup of fairy tale and historical fiction

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen; published by Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 1992; 200 pages.

Gemma always told the tale Briar Rose to Becca and her older sisters, Sylvia and Shana.  It was a fairy tale full of castles and mists and awakening kisses.  What Becca and her sisters didn’t understand until after their grandmother’s death was that Briar Rose wove the reality of Gemma’s survival during the Holocaust into a happily-ever-after fairy tale.  An adult Becca, a journalist, travels back to Poland to follow the trail a box of mementos has revealed.  Is Becca a princess, in the most literal sense of the word, descended from Polish royalty?  Or is Briar Rose a metaphor for surviving one of the most horrific events in modern history?

I bought this paperback during a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM, http://www.ushmm.org/) in Washington, D.C. last summer.  With a return trip to D.C. on the horizon (we’re actually back from that trip now), I picked it up to read before revisiting the USHMM with my daughter, who’s wrapping up a major project on the Holocaust for school.  Only Jane Yolen could capture the ethereal realm of fairy tales while weaving a rather horrific tale of survival.  Her choice of retelling Sleeping Beauty as a Holocaust story was genius.  Not only did Gemma awake from her horrors, but I’d like to think that Yolen’s story will open the eyes of readers reluctant to read Holocaust non-fiction or historical fiction.

I know that my second visit to the USHMM was more poignant, more personal, because I kept a bit of Gemma’s experience in my heart.  References to mobile extermination, Chelmno, and the resistance movement meant more to me as I could almost put a face of someone I “know” (even though they are works of fiction).  For me, that is reason enough to highly recommend this book.

But it’s a Jane Yolen story, so the story will stand on its own, whether or not the reader takes any of the Holocaust horror away as the back cover closes.  I think the story is written at a level a little above most middle schoolers, who might choose to read this while studying the Holocaust, so I would really recommend that it be read collectively with teacher direction if used in middle school.  Otherwise, high school students and adults should add this to their “must-read” lists, especially preceding a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 10-adult

Cover Art: The paperback I read combined a fairy tale appropriate rose with barbed wire–pretty significant thorns, don’t you think?  That image should let browsers know that this is a Sleeping Beauty story unlike any other.

From Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction)

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