In the heat of midsummer 1942, deep in a forest in the heart of Poland, Briar Rose arrives at a castle that has fallen into the hands of an evil army. Corrupted by dark deeds and choked by a poisonous mist, the castle will soon come to be known as Chelmno extermination camp. And in that place of death, Briar Rose is plunged into a deep sleep….
Ever since she was a child, Rebecca has been enchanted by her grandmother Gemma’s stories of Briar Rose. Becca would have sworn the stories were made up, but on her deathbed Gemma extracts from Becca a promise to fulfill three impossible requests: find the castle, find the prince, and find the spell-maker. Her vow sends Becca on a remarkable journey to uncover the truth of Gemma’s astonishing claim: I am Briar Rose.
Jane Yolen’s graceful retelling of the German folktale of “Briar Rose”—also known as “Sleeping Beauty”—sets the story amid forests patrolled by the German army during World War II. Yolen confronts the deeply tragic events of the Holocaust with lyrical prose and rich characterizations that tell a tale of good and evil, hope and despair. Tor Teen’s new edition of Briar Rose is available April 19th—read Yolen’s new preface to the novel below!
HOW BRIAR ROSE BECAME…
The road to writing and publishing can sometimes be rocky, sometimes smooth, a bit fairy tale-ish in itself. But a writer must distrust both the rocky and the smooth, and walk the middle road, which is all about the characters and the story.
I had just finished writing a different Holocaust novel—The Devil’s Arithmetic--several years earlier and swore to myself never to do another. That was because of the research. I’d spent years doing it, finding myself in a place that was dark, bloody, inhuman, awful; a place where the stories were mostly tragedies. And yet those stories also had their share of honor, courage, sacrifice, and love. I was wrung out emotionally and spiritually from the research and the writing.
But then my dear friend, the editor of the fairy tale novel series, Terri Windling, and I had lunch. She said she needed a Sleeping Beauty retelling for her list.
Now I, have always found parts of that story highly disturbing (read the older, Italian version to see what I mean).
However, as we were talking, I suddenly remembered something I’d seen in the research for The Devil’s Arithmetic. Watching the movie Shoah I’d heard about the concentration camp “Chelmno” which was set up in a schloss, a castle. Barbed wire surrounded the place, and people—mostly Jews—were gassed there. And I told Terri about this and how it seemed to me to be the perfect match for the story of Sleeping Beauty: girl/woman in castle, wire/briars, gassed/sleep. The Nazi Commandant the wicked fairy.
She said, “Write me that book!” and paid for lunch.
The smooth road. Distrust it.
I went home, thinking, What have I done to myself. Thinking: More horrific research. Thinking: Piece of cake, perfect metaphor.
I took out all my old research books, the histories, the biographies, the autobiographies, the newspaper and magazine articles. Nowhere was there a mention of Chelmno. I went to the Smith College and Amherst College libraries (I live nearby), and there was nothing about a concentration camp in a schloss.
Worried that I’d misremembered, I bought a copy of Shoah and paced through it again. All nine hours. Found the mention of Chelmno, wondered if perhaps I’d been spelling it incorrectly, went back to research… and still nothing.
Remember, this was 1987-8. Very little Internet around. I wasn’t even on a computer yet, though my husband was a computer scientist at the University of Massachusetts.
Rocky road. Distrust it.
And then fate gave me a little shove. I was at a Jewish Book Fair in New York City at the 92nd Street Y, signing copies of The Devil’s Arithmetic. I had a break for lunch and needing something to read while I ate (doesn’t everybody?), went around the publishers’ booths collecting stuff. One thing I picked up was a brochure for a new Jewish Encyclopedia. It showed what various entries would look like and had chosen to display three from the beginning of the alphabet. I sat down, began reading and—I’m not making this up—the C entry was for Chelmno. A jaw-drop moment later and I stashed that carefully in my pocketbook. I couldn’t wait to get home to call my editor and say I was going to be able to do the book.
That piece of astonishing luck, fate, God-nudge, happenstance, synchronicity, call it what you will, lead me to various other places of research, and soon I was on my way.
But researching a book and writing it are very different parts of a whole. The story and the characters have to lead. Where characters come from differ from book to book.
I knew the broad outlines the places in the book: Chelmo because I’d researched it. Hatfield with its Polish Club and the newspaper in the old mill house because that was where I lived (and still live). And the opening scene in the nursing home because it was the one in Hadley, Mass., where my father spent the last four months of his life. I drove there almost every single day he was a resident to spend time with him. He’d lived with us the previous four years, sick with Parkinson’s and assorted other ailments. And Poland? Well a good friend had just gotten back from a trip there, so I took her to lunch and got her to tell me about the airport, the roads, the smell and feel of the place, while I took careful notes.
I knew my main characters—or so I thought—because they were based on some of the people in our town. The newspaper editor looked a lot like my friend Jane Dyer’s husband who was just about the right age.
But Josef Potoki was a surprise. And maybe when you read the book he will surprise you, too. Because he was supposed to be Becca’s grandfather. That’s what my notes said. And then. . .he wasn’t.
Sometimes a character does that–surprises the author. And when that happens, it is a kind of magic that can change, augment, deepen, expand, elevate a book.
Another moment of magic came when I asked my daughter-in-law, a nurse, to find out for me what people who’d been gassed in a certain way would look like physically. Two days later, she called me from their home in Minneapolis to read aloud what the medical books said—that victims’ cheeks would have a roseate stain. Briar Rose. We both started hyperventilating at the congruity.
That’s middle road magic.
The best kind.
Even when it is about difficult, terrible, dark subjects.
Copyright © 1992 by Jane Yolen
Preface copyright © 2015 by Jane Yolen