Wednesday 27 January 2021

#CBR13 Book 3: "The Sisters of the Winter Wood" by Rena Rossner

Page count: 488 pages
Audio book length: 10 hrs 46 mins
Rating: 3.5 stars

Official book description:
In a remote village surrounded by vast forests on the border of Moldova and Ukraine, sisters Liba and Laya have been raised on the honeyed scent of their Mami’s babka and the low rumble of their Tati’s prayers. But when a troupe of mysterious men arrives, Laya falls under their spell – despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And this is not the only danger lurking in the woods.

As dark forces close in on their village, Liba and Laya discover a family secret passed down through generations. Faced with a magical heritage they never knew existed, the sisters realize the old fairy tales are true…and could save them all.

While the main story of this young adult fantasy novel with heavy fairytale elements is fictional, it's based on true historical events and the towns and places referenced really did exist back in 1903. Rena Rossner's extended family all came from the area and villages in question, and in the afterword, she explains that the ones that didn't escape after the pogroms and persecutions started in 1903, the ones who were still there in 1942, didn't survive the Nazi Holocaust. She wanted to write a book honouring her family and heritage, and also really wanted to do a retelling of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, because the story of the two sisters always appealed to her. As well as the influences from the Victorian poem about sisters tempted by seductive fruit sellers, Rossner also includes elements from Ukranian and Russian folklore with their bear-men and swan-maidens. 

When Liba and Laya are left alone in their little cabin in the woods outside the village of Dubossary (which is now near the borders of Moldova and Ukraine) after their father and mother are called away, hearing that their father's father, a legendary rabbi is on his death bed. While the young women are in their late teens, they have lived a sheltered life and are not used to independence. A Jewish couple from the village are supposed to be looking in on them occasionally, but they appear to have up and left town very suddenly, without leaving word. 

Laya, the youngest of the two sisters, especially chafes at all of their parents' restrictions, and is very easily tempted by the handsome fruitseller brothers, the Hovlins, who have just arrived in town. She seems like she cannot get enough of their luscious fruit or the company of one of the young men. She sneaks out every night to meet with him. Liba, on the other hand, feels herself getting the creeps every time she goes near the fruitsellers. Their obviously anti-Semitic views don't endear them to her either. She tries to warn her sister away, but her words have little sway with her besotted younger sister. 

Before their parents left them, they imparted long-held family secrets to the girls. Liba has the power to shift into a bear, like her father, and they come from a long line of Hasidic rabbis who gained the ability to shapeshift into bears in a time of great danger. Meanwhile, her mother, who converted into Judaism, is from an ancient family of swan-shifters. Her mother confesses that Laya has a different father from Liba, and that's why she's a swan-shifter. Apparently, at some point, their mother's swan clan may come looking for Laya, and her parents task her with keeping her sister safe. Liba, unfortunately, notices her body trying to transform into a bear at any time she gets upset, and also struggles with her growing feelings for the butcher's son, Dovid. While he is also Jewish, not an unbeliever like the wicked Hovlin boys, Liba isn't optimistic that their father will find him a suitable husband for her, especially once the secrets about the bear-shifting are revealed. Who would want a woman who turns into a giant bear?

While Jews and Christians have lived peacefully and harmoniously side by side in the village for decades, there are unhappy mutterings and whispers the longer the Hovlins stay in town and ply their wares. A young woman goes missing and is found in the orchard of a Jewish family, drained of blood. Later a young man is found, also drained of blood. There are rumours that they were killed by Jews and the blood used for sinister things in their religious ceremonies. Liba is appalled, and also more and more worried about her sister, who eats nothing but fruit and seems obsessed with her slightly sinister non-Jewish suitor. There are also stories about big bears in the woods (could they have killed the drained victims?).

Using shapeshifting as a metaphor for puberty isn't exactly anything new, I remember it being a very obvious comparison drawn by the horror movie Ginger Snaps. Feeling like you're not entirely in control of your body, having strange and uncontrollable urges, being worried that you're going to do something stupid - this is all part of being a teenager (I work surrounded by them all day and am so grateful I'm decades past my own teen years). Of course, Liba and Laya have different cravings and urges, yet seem to spend almost more time worrying about the other than they do themselves (although Liba naturally fears turning into a big bear and mauling everyone she holds dear). 

There was a lot to like about this book, but it was also a bit slow. For reasons that I'm sure were meant to show the differences between the sisters and their general states of mind and approaches to the world, Liba's chapters are written in prose, while Laya's chapters are all in a strange kind of verse. Sadly, it seems a bit as if Ms. Rossner occasionally just added line breaks every so often to make it seem more 'poetic', while the overall effect is more that the pages and pages of verse in her chapters quickly get difficult to read. 

The mix of fiction highlighting actual historical events, like the persecution and eradication of Jews in turn of the century Eastern Europe with fantastical fairy tale inspired characters and fates was an interesting one. So many books, even historical fantasy ones, are written from a Christianity-centric viewpoint. It was both interesting and unusual to read one so well researched and steeped in Jewish culture and traditions. This was the author's debut, and I see she has another fairy tale inspired book out later this year, so I suspect I will be giving her another chance. 

Judging a book by its cover: This cover is absolutely gorgeous and so very intricate and detailed. I absolutely love how it looks like an old woodcut that's been varnished or polished to highlight certain parts of the wood. Pretty much everything that turns out to be important in the story is hinted at in the cover illustration, so it's well worth giving some time. The author specifically thanked the cover artist in the acknowledgments and I can see why.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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