Briar Rose: A Critical Review
Writer’s have many decisions to make when they start on a story, from who the characters are to how the story is told. Jane Yolen uses the third person narrative in Briar Rose. This allows readers to explore the horrors of WWII without being overwhelmed by the gruesome details and for Yolen to switch from the books past to the books present without confusing readers.
Briar Rose is about a twenty-three-year-old named Becca who on her grandmother’s deathbed, promised to discover her grandmother’s past. This proves to be difficult, as her mother–Gemma’s only daughter–knows almost nothing about Gemma; not her real name, where she came from or who her husband was. The only clues Becca has to Gemma’s identity are small souvenirs that were hidden in a small box. After getting all the information, she can from the box’s contents, Becca travels to Poland with the hopes of finding concrete answers.
The story swings back and forth in time, allowing readers to learn about the fairytale that Gemma told her granddaughters in flashbacks, and return to the story’s present to learn about Becca’s journey through alternating chapters. This allows readers to see how the story of Briar Rose Gemma told her granddaughters relates to the information Becca discovers as she uncovers Gemma’s past, until past and present converge.
The transition between the two times is seamless. This is because Jane Yolen chose to write the story completely in third person. If the tale had been told in first person or even alternating between first and third, readers would have been jarred from the story and potentially confused as to the shift in time. However, the fact the story is told in third person allows the voice and tone to remain the same throughout the chapter and only the flashback chapters need to be italicized to let readers know that they are reading a flashback. The story stops alternating between past and present when Becca meets Josef Potoki, a Holocaust survivor, who knew her grandparents.
Josef tells his story and the story of Becca’s grandparents for the majority of the remaining book. Since Josef is in fact telling his own story, it would have been acceptable for Yolen to switch to first person at that point, however Yolen wisely chose to keep the story in third person. This allows the horrors that were endured in WWII to be revealed, along with other subject matter, without overwhelming or sickening readers. On several occasions, readers may have put the book down if the descriptions were in first person. For example, at one point in Josef’s story he and several of his comrades end up in Chełmno, which was the location of an Extermination camp. There victims of Nazi’s are loaded into the back of trucks and gassed to death. Josef and his companions watch in horror as bodies are shoved out of the back of the trucks. Only at the end of the day, when they believe it is safe do they approach the mass grave the bodies’ were dumped in:
They came to the side of the deepening dark. It was enormous, full of shadows: shadows of arms, or legs, of heads thrown back, mouths open in silenced screams. Lines of Dante ran through Josef’s mind but he realized, not even the great Alighieri could touch the horror of what lay at his feet. The smell–a lingering fog of exhaust fumes, the stench of loosened bowels, the sweet-sickly odor of the two- and three-day dead–drenched them (206).
If this were in first person, the details would more likely have been sharper. Josef’s stomach would have turned at the stench described, perhaps tasted it at the back of his tongue. The details could have been sharper, so that the bodies are seen in detail. Granted, this could be true of third person as well, but no matter how deeply one writes, third person always seems a little more distant than first person. The difference between using I and Josef may seem miniscule, but it can change the impact of a scene.
Using third person is what made Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose a success. It made the transition between the past and present smooth and protected readers from some of the more grisly details found in the book.