Thursday, April 21, 2016

Briar Rose

Briar Rose
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Ages: 14+

Becca Berlin doesn't realize how little she knew about her grandma, affectionally known as Gemma, until the old lady dies, leaving her a box of mysterious documents and photographs, along with the weight of a promise to get to the bottom of Gemma's claim that she, Gemma, is the real Briar Rose - you know, from the story of Sleeping Beauty.

An investigative reporter for a left-wing newspaper, Becca is the right person for the job. When she follows the current of Gemma's disturbingly unique version of the classic fairy tale, it leads her to a small town in Poland haunted by guilt dating back to Hitler's holocaust, and a heartbreaking story told by an old man who was once imprisoned for being a homosexual.

The truth of what led Gemma to be convinced she was the sleeping princess is moving beyond belief, yet strangely believable. This story of an investigative journalist discovering her own roots in a mass grave near a Nazi extermination camp is about as far from the source material as I reckon a modern update of a fairy tale could get. Yet in a series of just such stories by various authors, of which this book was originally a part, this is by far the most acclaimed and enduring installment. It leaves behind echoes that may disturb your sleep several nights running - such as Gemma's statement that even dead people have a future so long as the living remember them and are moved to take action in memory of them - or the final paragraph of the author's note at the end of the book, in which she makes clear just what parts of it were fiction and which parts were real with a bluntness that left me emotionally overwhelmed.

If the dead indeed live not only in the hearts but also the actions of those who remember them, the lessons our civilization must learn from the holocaust may yet sink in. To ensure that happens, I strongly advise reading this book. If what Gemma says is true, it could change the world in a way that it still needs changing. Also, it's an excellent book, a book to be loved.

Jane Yolen is the very prolific author of the Pit Dragons quartet, the Young Merlin trilogy, the Tartan Magic trilogy, more than 20 "How Do Dinosaurs...?" stories, two Rock 'n' Roll Fairy Tales co-written with her son Adam Stemple, The Wizard of Washington Square, The Devil's Arithmetic, Sword of the Rightful King, A Plague of Unicorns, and many, many more. It's about time I went on a quest to read them all. Her author credits show her to be an authority on fairy tale lore; and this is not her only attempt to write a children's book that does justice to the horrors of the Holocaust. I mentally file her in a special category of great young adult authors such as Diana Wynne Jones, Joan Aiken, and Lloyd Alexander.

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