“What’s Past is Prologue”: Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose

Once upon a time in a far away land, a redheaded princess was woken by a kiss from a prince. Rebecca Berlin loved hearing her grandmother, Gemma, tell her version of Sleeping Beauty over and over again. The tale never altered and Gemma swore she was the princess—księżniczka—of the story, and after her death Becca begins to suspect the tale may not be fantasy after all. Gemma left behind a small box of a few clues to her life before: a name, a monogrammed ring, some photographs, a war refugee immigration card, and other scattered memories. Each item reveals more of Gemma’s secret past, and yanks Rebecca further out of her quiet, boring life.

In Briar Rose Jane Yolen weaves the history of the Holocaust around the threads of a fairy tale about love conquering hate. Gemma’s story takes Becca from a small mill town in Massachusetts to Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in New York then to the Chełmno extermination camp in Poland, with each step bringing her closer to a tragic truth her grandmother was unable to face. As she uncovers Gemma’s story, her own fairy tale romance emerges with an unexpected prince and a kiss to kick-start her life.

Originally published in 1992 as part of Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale Series, Jane Yolen’s classic young adult novel is being re-released with an updated preface.

This was one of those books that I had to keep putting down, not only because the real history behind Gemma’s story was so horrible but also because Yolen’s story was so beautifully told that I couldn’t stand the thought of finally finishing it. I wanted it to be over and I didn’t. There’s a reason Briar Rose won the 1993 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and is on the American Library Association’s lists for 100 Best Books for Teens and Best Books for Young Adults, School Library Journal’s Best Adult Books for Young Adults, and New York Public Library’s Best Books for the Teen Age.

Briar Rose is a powerful history of the victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust as well as a revelatory tale about growing up and falling in love. Gemma undergoes a transformation—losing her old life to the terrible events at the Chełmno schloss, her rescue by the partisans, and her salvation in America—but so too does Josef Potocki, the gay Polish prince who drifts through life and near-death until Gemma forces him to act decisively.

Gemma and Josef are both Sleeping Beauty in a way. The kiss they shared, however platonic, brought the two of them back to life as different people, as new people, as braver people. Both lost their homes and families to war. Both nearly died in Nazi death camps yet escaped just in the nick of time. Both loved men who died young and before that love could mature. And both emerged from the war scarred and damaged and only able to move forward by putting the past in a box, literally in Gemma’s case. The war broke them and remade them. Gemma went on to live in a home full of love while Josef was resigned to a life of loneliness near the village that thought maybe Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy after all, but in the end both were haunted by their pasts.

A story as compelling as Briar Rose deserves an equally compelling structure, and Yolen delivers. Although written mostly linearly with a detour into history as Josef recounts the events of the war, Yolen starts each chapter of Becca’s sections with Gemma telling the story of Briar Rose. We only get snippets of the story taken from bits of Becca’s childhood memories, but each interstitial hints at what’s to come in Josef’s section. It’s a remarkably effective technique.

We all know the story of Sleeping Beauty, but this allows Yolen to create dramatic tension as we grow more desperate to hear how Gemma’s version differs from the Grimm brothers’, especially once we realize her tale has more truth to it than we thought. The disjointed structure also makes it feel more like recalling a distant memory. Gemma’s real history and fictional memories blurred together to create a dark fairy tale that helped her cope and gave Becca something to bind her to her grandmother. The story is fragmentary and fractured, just as memories often are when we wish to ignore the hard truths for more satisfying fictions.

Gemma’s fairy tale is her way of dealing with her ordeal, of compartmentalizing it down into easily digestible pieces. Or, to use Jack Zipes’ quote that opens the book, “…(B)oth the oral and the literary forms of the fairy tale are grounded in history: they emanate from specific struggles to humanize bestial and barbaric forces, which have terrorized our minds and communities in concrete ways, threatening to destroy free will and human compassion. The fairy tale sets out to conquer this concrete terror through metaphors.”

I read Briar Rose with Wikipedia close by. You think you know about the Holocaust and the concentration and extermination camps and then you read what actually happened there in vivid detail and suddenly you can’t breathe. Reading about the 340,000 Łódź Ghetto and foreign Jews, Romani, gay people, and Soviet prisoners of war executed in killing vans from December 8, 1941, to January 18, 1945, combined with experiencing it from the perspective of a (fictional) gay Polish prince who witnessed it first hand was harrowing.

For being a book published in 1992, Briar Rose is surprisingly, wonderfully, thrillingly forward-thinking in terms of LGBTQ. Sodomy laws were still on the books in many states. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Acts were looming on the horizon. It would be another six years before Will and Grace aired, a show that has often been credited as helping turn positive public opinion on homosexuality. Legalizing gay marriage was as much of a fairy tale as Sleeping Beauty. So for Yolen to make a major plot point revolve around a gay man sent to a death camp is huge. It’s not often that Holocaust stories deal with the non-Jewish victims even though they constituted just over half of those executed by the Nazis. Their stories need to be told and we need to hear them.

“Stories…we are made up of stories. And even the ones that seem the most like lies can be our deepest hidden truths.” Briar Rose should be required reading for high school students right alongside The Diary of Anne Frank. Both put an intimately human perspective on war, hate, and compassion. This wasn’t just the best book I’ve read this year; in fact, it may be one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Briar Rose is available now from Tor Teen.
Read Jane Yolen’s preface to the new edition here on Tor.com.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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