Monday, 6 May 2013
#CBR5 Book 47. "Briar Rose" by Jane Yolen
Rating: 5 stars
Rebecca, or Becca, is the youngest of three sisters, and has always been captivated by her grandmother Gemma's unusual version of Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty. Even after her older sisters got sick of hearing it, she would ask her grandmother to tell it. So when her grandmother claims to actually have been Briar Rose on her deathbed, making Becca promise to find out the truth about her family background and the castle she came from, the rest of the family, especially her sisters, are scornful and disbelieving. As Becca starts looking into her grandmother's past, she realises that no one in the family really knew who Gemma was, or where she came from.
Aided by the handsome editor at the independent newspaper where she works, Becca starts looking into her grandmother's past, and the claims that her story of Briar Rose is true. Her quest to find her family's origins take her to first through refugee records in the US, then to Europe, and Poland, and the remains of the concentration camps of the Second World War.
I love me a good fairy tale retelling. This one is more creative and better than most that I've read. Normally these retellings are fantasy, this is not one of those books. Be warned that this is not an easy read, and while this is a fictional account, the remains of the death camp that Rebecca finds in the idyllic village of Chelmno in Poland, and the stories of what went on there, are all too real. The Sleeping Beauty story that Gemma tells is very clearly a loose metaphor for the terrifying atrocities perpetrated there during the war, and it's clear that Becca's grandmother survived against all odds.
Set in a time which will have been more or less contemporary when the book was released in 1992, it's even more of a historical novel now, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist Poland is almost a distant memory. It gives us insight into not only the terrifyingly efficient and systematic persecution of the Jews by the Nazis, but also that of the homosexuals, Gypsies, and anyone else who didn't fit into their vision for the Third Reich. Not all the concentration camps were for the Jews, and not all of them were places were death camps. There were also the hard labour camps, where obscene medical experiments were performed on the prisoners. Recent historical research has shown that there were a lot more camps than we previously suspected, and the extermination machinery of the Nazis was a lot more wide-spread and gruesome than anyone could have believed. Books like this are necessary so coming generations can learn about the horror, and so that we never repeat our mistakes.