July 2

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.

June 28

A book review: Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

Ever since she was a child, Rebecca has been enchanted by her grandmother Gemma’s stories about Briar Rose. But a promise Rebecca makes to her dying grandmother will lead her on a remarkable journey to uncover the truth of Gemma’s astonishing claim: I am Briar Rose. A journey that will lead her to unspeakable brutality and horror. But also to redemption and hope.

I must say in a lot of ways this book reminds me of that NBC TV series, “Who Do You Think You Are?” For those unfamiliar about it, the documentary features a new celebrity each week, who goes on a journey to trace his or her family tree. They are often surprised by what they find in their ancestor’s pasts, traveling across America and to different cultures to find answers.

Becca goes on a similar journey after she makes a promise to her grandmother who is on her deathbed: find the castle and the prince from the story Gemma has always told her grand kids as they grew up, the story of Briar Rose or Sleeping Beauty.

Unfortunately, Gemma has left few clues as to her past. Her mother, Gemma’s only daughter, doesn’t even know Gemma’s real name or where she came from.  She always believed Gemma came to America just before the First World War. However there is one document that suggests she didn’t arrive until in the middle of the war. After gathering all the clues and information she can find with her little proof, she goes to Poland, in search of more concrete answers.

Her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor.  In fact, she survived, barely, being gassed at an extermination camp. The way she survives is believable though predictable set of circumstances. And the story of Briar Rose is the only thing she remembers when she recovers. Not to give spoilers but she goes by several names throughout the book.

This book was interesting.  Not only in how the story of Briar Rose and the holocaust are combined in the book, but Yolen had no fear of using new perspectives. There is no real magic in the book, despite the frequent references to fairies and magic spells. It is based on reality. For about half of the book, we learn the story of Josef Potocki who knew Gemma briefly. He was the Prince that woke Gemma with a kiss. He wasn’t Jewish, he wasn’t Roma (Gypsy), he was rich. Royalty, in fact, was in his ancestry, but he ended up in a concentration camp for a year. The reason? Josef Potocki is gay.

Him being gay adds to the story and isn’t just a fact thrown into the book to make him different. We learn about two lovers he had. We know there were more. We even get a very brief narrative summary of him making love with one of his lovers.

Suicide happens in the book, both the traditional slit-wrist kind and the suicidal mission kind. Murder is mentioned. Heterosexual love is also in the book. And Becca has her own budding romance in the book. I did find Becca’s older sister’s annoying. They treated her more like a wayward daughter than a sister who was only a few years younger than them and they, themselves, bickered like six year olds when they were in the same scene together. Luckily, they weren’t in the story for long. Becca, to me, seemed the mature one of the three.

Published in 1992, this book is geared for Young Adults, but as an adult I enjoyed it.  It’s a literary novel, but the pace kicked along, making it hard for me to put the book down. It has some great quote-worthy lines and a great coming-of-age story in it.  Three actually–Gemma’s, Becca’s and Josef’s.  For those who enjoy historical novels, this book is a must read. Even if you don’t normally like historical novels, this one may be an exception to that rule.

Have you read Briar Rose?  What did you think?  Do you plan on reading Briar Rose?