Reviewed by Steven H Silver
While the story of Briar Rose, Sleeping Beauty, is familiar to everyone, Jane Yolen sets her version of the classic fairy tale against the harsh backdrop of Nazi Germany and their campaign to extinguish the Jews, gays and Gypsies. The story is told from the point of view of Becca Berlin, a young Jewish-American journalist whose grandmother, Gemma, was a survivor of the Holocaust.
Growing up, Becca's grandmother refused to discuss her life during the Holocaust, instead telling Becca variations of the story of Sleeping Beauty. In some of these retellings, Gemma placed herself in the story as the sleeping princess, arousing Becca's interest more fully. When Gemma died, Becca promised to travel to Europe to look into the story her grandmother told.
Yolen's story has several surprising turns as the common images of the story of sleeping beauty metamorph into the realities of life under the Nazis. The thicket of thorns which surrounds the castle in which the princess sleeps become the barbed wire the Nazis stretched across Europe. Gas chambers and mass graves replace other parts of the story as Yolen portrays the real life horror of the Holocaust.
There is a tendency, especially among Jewish authors, to narrowly focus on the six million Jews who were killed by the Nazis. However, there were other victims and Yolen does not shy away from including them in her rendition. Upon arriving in Europe, Becca finds Josef Potocki, an homosexual who suffered under the Nazi regime. Josef proves to be Becca's link to her grandmother and the life she led in Europe fifty years earlier.
Yolen is well known for writing children's books, yet the topics covered in Briar Rose are not juvenile topics. Nevertheless, Yolen manages to handle these topics well, in a circumspect manner. Briar Rose can be read by adults or by teenagers and not be overly offensive. That said, it is interesting to note that a myopic Midwestern city did ban Briar Rose shortly after it was published because of the sympathetic way in which Yolen dealt with her homosexual characters.
While Briar Rose doesn't sugarcoat the Holocaust, the characters in the book are distant enough from it that they have made their peace with the horrific events which, at one time, defined their life, whetehr by subverting their memories, as Grandmother Gemma did, or simply moving beyond their fear and hatred, as Josef had to. Their stories are no less disturbing for that distance, although they are made more readable.
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