ALG: Voice and Agency in Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose

Series: Archetypal Looking Glass

Spoiler Warning: Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

Trigger Warning: Briar Rose is about the Holocaust. I don’t talk a huge amount about the camps themselves in this post, however.

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Image Description: Cover of Briar Rose, by Jane Yolen. Roses grow on barbed wire. In the background there is the shadow of a face: closed eyes, nose, and a mouth. Picture taken from Amazon.

Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose is a beautiful book, and an incredibly difficult read, not because of the density of the text—in that sense it is very readable—but because of the content. I spent the last third of the book shaking. As novels about the Holocaust go I think Briar Rose does a very good job, and I will talk a little bit about the reasons for that. However, I am sure many people have talked about Briar Rose in that context, and that isn’t the main reason for this review. I picked up Briar Rose not because it was a novel about the Holocaust (I rarely read novels on this topic because they are very difficult for me to read, among other reasons), but because Briar Rose is, as its title suggests, based around the story of Sleeping Beauty. It is this that I will be focusing on in this post.

A lot of times, adaptations try to give characters more agency by making changes to the story, as I have seen in my exploration of Snow White adaptations. Briar Rose, however, keeps the same basic story, but uses it as a metaphor, and in the process gives agency to a lot of people often denied it in their stories. Briar Rose herself is only one of them: Gemma, as Briar Rose, fits the story very clearly via metaphor. The way the metaphor is done and the things that happen after she is rescued make her a very strong character and a very strong person.  And since the events for which Sleeping Beauty becomes a metaphor are part of the Holocaust, and Gemma and her most of her rescuers are Jews (and the only one who isn’t a Jew is gay), the victims of the Holocaust get to play a role in their rescue that is denied them in a lot of Holocaust stories, whether true or fictional.

The story goes like this: A curse is placed. All the people of the kingdom are sentenced to sleep. Then a prince comes, and kisses the princess, and she wakes, and the prince and the princess leave together. Gemma is the princess, sentenced to death, pulled back from the edge of death by her rescuers, a group of partisans—resistance fighters– who find her in a pit of dead bodies from the death camp Chelmno. The partisans spend hours trying to resuscitate her, but finally they succeed. Finally, Gemma is able to breath on her own.

The greatest change made to the story that Gemma tells is this: While the whole kingdom sleeps, only Briar Rose wakes up. The reasons for this change are obvious. No one else who was in the camps with Gemma was saved. Only Gemma—and in reality, the camp which the fictional Gemma managed to escape from only had two known escapees, both of them men. The fact that Gemma was able to survive and keep the will to live is impressive enough, and is in this case perhaps the only thing she could have contributed to her own rescue. What happens after that, though, is what makes her character, and that is one of the problems with many tellings of Sleeping Beauty: either we see nothing after the rescue and the wedding, or the Sleeping Beauty character continues to do nothing for the entire rest of the story. But with Briar Rose, the story only happens because Gemma goes on. Because she joins with partisans who found her and then, after marrying one of her rescuers in a secret ceremony in the wood, becomes pregnant, and escapes to America. Because she goes through the many difficulties of being a refugee during and after World War Two. Because even after everything that has happened she goes on to be a mother and a grandmother. Briar Rose can only happen because even after everything that she went through, Gemma is strong enough to tell her story—deeply entrenched in metaphor—to her grandchildren. Becca clearly takes after her grandmother, and has obviously been hugely influenced by her, and she only makes the choices she makes—to go on her journey, to learn about her grandmother’s past—because of their relationship.

I’ve talked about storytelling as an aspect of agency, both in this review and in the last one, and I want to go into that a little more. Storytelling is hugely important in Briar Rose; the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale is how Gemma copes with her trauma, and parts of it are sprinkled throughout the book. Not just parts of the fairy tale, in fact, but scenes of it being told. It is not only the story that is being told that is important, but the act itself. When you want to oppress someone, one of the most important things to do is silence them, stop them from telling their story either to their children or their potential allies. Propaganda, arguably one of the most important tools in war, and certainly in WWII, is a way of making the public believe the story that you want them to believe. Storytelling shapes how we perceive reality, our relationships with the world, and even our own identities. Often stripping someone of their voice, of their ability to tell their own story, can be a way of trying to strip them of their identity.

It isn’t ever clear in the book to what extent Gemma believed that she was Sleeping Beauty, and whether or not she knew it was a metaphor. When she is revived, she says that the story of Sleeping Beauty is all that she remembers, and that she has a sense that it is her story. Perhaps over time she remembered what happened, or perhaps she never truly forgot in the first place. Whether conscious or unconscious, though, the metaphor is Gemma’s way of coping, of processing what happens. It is also the instrument by which she takes her agency. By telling her story, Gemma claims her voice. She creates herself and shapes the world of her children and grandchildren. By telling her story, Gemma defies the people who would have her dead and silent, who would have history raise up her torturers as heroes. And by telling her story, Gemma allows the other stories in the book to be told, also. It is because she has heard Gemma’s story, over and over, and understood its importance—something which depends on both storyteller and listener—that she decides to seek out the true story of her grandmother’s past. And because our identities are so informed by our histories, our origins, and the people we have known, understanding her grandmother’s past may help Becca to understand herself a little better.

The other person whose story Briar Rose contains is Josef Potoki, a gay man who was one of Gemma’s rescuers (in fact, the one who finally successfully revived her). Another survivor of the Holocaust, Josef also is allowed to exercise his voice. Becca is sent to him specifically because he is willing to talk about what happened–and because both he and Gemma have been able to do this, he is eventually able to tell his story to perhaps one of the most important people he could possibly tell it to, for him as well as for that person: the granddaughter of the woman he saved.

There are many wonderful and important things about this book. The way that Jane Yolen has given agency and voice to the sleeping princess is one, yes, but so is the way that she gives agency and voice to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, to the people targeted by it, something too often left out of stories—true or fictional—about both the Holocaust and the war. There is a reason that when I was a teenager I refused to read any story that even seemed like it might include the subject outside of school. I was tired of seeing my people—myself—portrayed only as victims.

This book is the perfect remedy to that.

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