Monday, February 17, 2014

Imagining the Unimaginable: Jane Yolen's Briar Rose

Jane Yolen's Briar Rose
One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time. Carl Sagan

Last week, I finished teaching Jane Yolen's novel Briar Rose. When I collected the reflections from my two freshman writing classes, I expected to find the same-old same-old responses I often get, plot summaries of the book dangerously close to the book synopses to be found on Sparknotes. What I read, instead, surprised me.

The majority of the students had found themselves deeply invested in the book, and their responses were intricate and vocally unique - the best stuff, in fact, they have written all semester. I suppose I really shouldn't have been all that surprised, since Yolen masterfully casts a spell over her readers, enticing them into a tale that initially seems rather syrupy and unassuming, but eventually becomes as harrowing as any story can be. As the book winds outward from the framing device of the traditional fairy-tale "Briar Rose," Yolen carefully knits the Grimm tale to one woman's experience of the Holocaust, leading the reader toward a confrontation with the mass graves in the Nazi extermination camp in Chelmno, Poland and the ~350,000 people who died there. Many readers may want to turn away from the portal this book opens up into one of the darkest periods in human history  - the survivor's story that anchors the book is graphic, brutal, and horrifying. But, as P.L. Travers once said, in a quotation used as an epigraph by Yolen at the novel's mid-point, "Once we have accepted the story, we cannot escape the story's fate." Once we are enticed into Briar Rose via the magic of the fairy-tale mystery, we must endure the narrative of death, terror, and survival that is truly at the book's core.

If you haven't yet read Yolen's Briar Rose, drop whatever you are doing and order it at once. It is a book that will endure in your memory and make you a better person for having read it. It's also the kind of book that leaves you wanting more. As one of my students put it, "I wish the book wouldn't have ended. Honestly, I wanted to keep reading it forever." A/J
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