Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

“In the  storybooks she’d read in school, everyone got to wake up at the prince’s kiss.  But in Gemma’s version, the implication was that they all still slept under the wicked fairy’s sentence of death.  Death by sleep.”

Becca’s grandmother, Gemma, has been telling her the same version of Sleeping Beauty since she was a toddler.  In the nursing home, before her death, she claims “I was the princess”, struggling against the restraints that keep her from wandering and insisting that her old story was true.  “I am Briar Rose,” she repeats.  “”I was the princess in the castle in the sleeping woods.”  Becca’s siblings write it off as senility, the last tethers of her mind loosening with the combined stresses of age and loss.

Becca isn’t so sure, though. After Gemma dies, a mysterious box is unearthed, full of documents: newspaper clippings, birth certificates for her daughters, faded photographs, and a visa.  The visa is cryptic: the town of origin has been marked through, and other details have also been obscured.  It’s as if Gemma does not want to think about her life before immigrating to the United States.  But why?

Becca partners up with her coworker (and love interest),  Stan, to begin the investigation.  After narrowing down the Gemma’s city of origin to a couple of possibilities, Becca heads to Poland to learn more about Gemma’s story.  She carefully teases away layers of Gemma’s tale of the sleeping princess and the castle, and unearths the true story of the Nazi persecution of the Polish Jews, gays, and other marginalized groups during the Holocaust.  Gemma’s castle was actually Chelmno, a concentration camp that only a handful of people-three men and a woman-ever escaped from.  What ensues is a tale of hatred, hardship, and human resilience.  Really, I know.  The Holocaust was such  a shattering event that we have book upon book written over it, but this is a very unique take, and absolutely worth a look.

Not only do I adore Yolen’s integration of the Holocaust with the traditional tale of Sleeping Beauty, I also love the format of this book.  It is divided into two sections: Home and Castle.  Home is Becca’s life in the U.S., and Castle is when she is in Poland.  Furthermore,  every other chapter is Gemma’s fairy tale, told in her own words.  It’s italicized so you never have any question about who is talking.  The other chapters relate Becca’s current experiences.  It’s nontraditional, but well handled.  Combined with Yolen’s innovative handling of the horrors of the Holocaust and how she weaves it with Briar Rose.

This is another gem from Yolen, a recipient of the Mythopoeic Award, for a book that best exemplifies “the spirit of the Inklings”.  I love that it focuses on homosexuality during this time period.  Yolen handles it sensitively and beautifully.  If you’re like me, and obsessed with fairy tale retellings, this is certainly one of the best ones I’ve read.  Another bonus?  Yolen writes in a shout-out to my absolute favorite book, Robin McKinley’s Beauty. 

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

Yolen, Jane. Briar Rose. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1992.  241 pp.

A note about the age: this book is recommended for readers 13 and up, but Becca (the protagonist) is actually a woman in her early twenties.  That may have been a plot device enabling Becca to go explore Poland on her own, but to a 13-year old, she may be a bit tricky to relate to.