"Aunt Becca, tell us a story."
She opened her eyes. It was Benjamin, his fair hair cut in low bangs. He looked so much like his father, she smiled. Imagine trying to tell Mike a story! But Shana's two little girls were right by his side, their eyes pleading. "All right. But only one. What should I tell?"
"Seepin Boot," whispered Sarah. Benjamin punched her arm.
"Not that one. That's Gemma's!"
"I'd like to tell that one," Becca said. "Because it's Gemma's."
"Won't she be mad?" asked Susan.
"Don't be silly," Benjamin said. "She's dead."
"Well, ghosts could get mad," Susan countered.
"Jews don't believe in ghosts," Benjamin stated with great authority. Then he looked over at Becca. "Do we?"
She shook her head, not because she didn't believe in ghosts, but because the conversation was obviously frightening Sarah, who leaned against her.
"Even if Gemma were a ghost," Becca said, "she'd be a loving ghost. And she would want me to tell Sleeping Beauty to you. In fact, the very last thing she talked to me about was Briar Rose."
Author: Jane Yolen
Synopsis: Becca and her two older sisters grew up hearing their grandmother's unique version of Sleeping Beauty over and over again, but they never understood why Gemma believed herself to be the protagonist of the tale. At last, acting on a promise made at Gemma's deathbed, journalist Becca goes looking for the truth of the story—a quest that takes her to Poland and the site of some of the Holocaust's most devastating horrors.
Notes: It's rare to find the lightness of a children's magic story blended with the darkness of real historical evil—with obvious reasons, as it's a little hard on the reader. The word 'Holocaust' on the cover gives some warning, but nothing ever entirely prepares one for graphic, emotive description of such inhuman brutalities as are described toward the end of the novel. It comes as a particular shock after the tender and playful beginning.
On the other hand, the beginning provides the primary hope of the narrative. It is, in the overarching scheme, the end.
Yolen has the artistic prowess to pull off both humor and horror with equal strength. The translation of history to fairy tale is brilliantly done, especially for such a short novel; the mass market paperback is only two hundred pages long, which doesn't leave a lot of time for developing complexities—or characters, for that matter. With that latter fact in mind, I'm tempted to forgive the few small failings—e.g., Becca's sisters apparently existing only as comfortable, hypocritical foils to her exquisite compassion and her potentially less sympathetic fresh-out-of-university ideologies—and note the quality realization of Becca, Josef, and even a handful of minor characters like the Avenger and Magda.
I don't have specific knowledge enough to speak to the accuracy of all the historical details, but Josef's story was painful and poignant, revelatory and horrifying. And this seems like the moment for an advisory: Briar Rose isn't a book to hand young children willy-nilly, as it contains numerous vivid depictions of violence and one single-sentence, non-detailed, but nonetheless startling description of a consensual but abusive gay sexual encounter.
As noted before, the primary hope of the tale is in its beginning, but the beginning is brought back around at the end for the reader's sake. It is the main redemption, but not the only one. Though not everyone in the tale could have a happily ever after, those who could not have it for themselves bequeathed it to a child and her children and grandchildren. And Magda's final words to Josef are the sort of thing to inspire tears—the tears that come with healing.
I'm going to leave off the usual Recommendation, not because I don't recommend the book, but because the subject matter cannot be spoken of lightly. Briar Rose is a beautiful read in many ways. It is not, however, an easy one. Reader, be aware.