Wednesday, June 27, 2012

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?


  1. Thanks Robin. I'm interested in this period of history. I'll have to put this on my TBR list.

    1. No problem. I hope you enjoy it. And I'll be posting a critical review on it soon. So come back for that!