Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Briar Rose (reviewed January 2008)

Briar Rose, Jane Yolen (1992)[****] I was looking for a young adult book about King Arthur for my 10-year-old; the promising title I found on-line was not on the bookstore shelves, but there were several other books by the same author that looked interesting, though I had never heard of her. Unlike most of Trixie's books, I decided to read this one first, and I'm glad I did, because I think it will be a couple years before she's ready for it -- it's both scary and a little more adult themed than I expected (or maybe I'm just becoming a prude). The novel is a haunting retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale (Briar Rose being the German version of that centuries-old story). The story opens in the present with 23-year-old Becca and her family sitting shiva for Gemma, Becca's beloved maternal grandmother. Gemma claimed to actually be Briar Rose, the heroine of the fairy tale she compulsively recited to Becca and her sisters throughout their childhood. On her deathbed, Gemma made Becca promise to find the castle, the prince and the caster of spells in the story. When the family finds a box of cryptic documents and WWII era photos that Gemma had hidden away, Becca becomes intrigued with Gemma's past, about which they know nothing, and decides to make good on her promise. Her investigation ultimately takes her to Poland and to the Nazi extermination camp in Chelmno, where she finally learns Gemma's story. Several interesting characters help her on her way: Stan, her editor at the alternative newspaper where she works, who as an adoptee understands Becca's desire to know more about her family's past; Magda, a young Polish woman Becca connects with through the Polish Jewish Student League, who serves as tour guide and interpreter for Becca in Poland; Father Stashu, a Polish priest in Chelmno who had hoped he could help the people of Chelmno atone, but has mostly lost hope; and Josef Potocki, an aging, gay, Polish aristocrat who had escaped from the Sachenhausen work camp and spent the remainder of the war with a band of partisans in the forests of Poland. He tells Becca his story, which in the end intersects with Gemma's and illuminates Gemma's identity as Briar Rose. This was a very good book, but I think it could have been brilliant, and fell short. Becca's good luck in her search strains credulity (sort of like on those Law and Order shows, where they only have 44 minutes, so every lead has to be a home run). I would have liked a more complicated plot and characters with more complex motivations. Still, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it to Julie for her fairy tale unit with her sophomores, and I'll definitely give it to Trixie in a year or two.

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