Friday, February 3, 2012

Sleeping Beauty

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In Briar Rose, Jane Yolen uses the tale of “Sleeping Beauty” as a point of reference for a haunting Holocaust mystery within a romance, within a compelling fairy tale, within a novel which will fascinate young as well as adult readers of all ages. Briar Rose is an unusual and poignant novel. It uses the fairy tale motif as both a thematic underpinning and as transitional material. But it is also said the book itself is a fairy tale in that it uses fairy tale logic and has a fairy tale at the core since no women actually escaped from Chelmno as recorded in Author’s note. The human brutality and cruelty exposed by Josef in his account of the Holocaust stands in dire contrast to the romantic fairytale of Briar Rose.

At all times, fairytales take romance as an important point of its structure. As follows, Jane Yolen presents Briar Rose as a fairytale by making it a romantic story with a happy ending, although it also has darker qualities. Romance is found in the relationship between Becca and Stan. Although their romance is not the main focus of the novel, Stan provides a romantic interest throughout the novel. His character is parallel with the Prince Charming in all traditional fairy stories.

Another romantic scene is found between Aron, Gemma, and Josef. The story of Gemma ended happily where Gemma marries her prince, and eventually escapes to the refuge of America where she has her baby. But Aron, Gemma’s love and Josef’s, is killed by the Nazis. Thus, it creates a limitation in the ‘happily ever after’ ending of every conventional fairy tales.

‘Kisses’ are symbols found in all romance stories. In Briar Rose, ‘kisses’ draw parallel lines between the fairytale and the novel’s story. At the end of the Briar Rose, Stan kisses Becca at the airport. This kiss recalls the kiss of the prince that woke the sleeping beauty, and Josef’s mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of Gemma. All ‘kisses’ represent a potentially happy future.


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Briar Rose resembles the original fairytales in that it is not merely a fantasy, but also an exploration of the dark side of human nature. Yolen shows that fairytales contain elements of darkness as well as light, an ‘angel of death’ as well as a princess, and are not so innocent as they might seem. The human potential for selfishness is represented in the characters of Shana and Sylvia. In the earlier chapter, when the three sisters visit Gemma in the nursing home, the reader is confronted with opposing characteristics between Shana and Sylvia compared to Becca. The two older sisters are self-centred and egoistical, while Becca is different with them as it is written Becca the youngest, smiled at them both, but she was not part of their magic circle and never had been.

In some ways, Shana and Sylvia can be seen as types of the ‘ugly sisters’ in Cinderella although they still have a good, decent part in their personalities. They try as hard as they possibly can to forbid Becca when she was going to Poland. This shows that Shana and Sylvia still care about Becca since they know that it is dangerous to go to Poland during that particular time, as Shana said in the phone call, “Well, you’re not to go. Especially with the political situation there. It’s liable to blow up any minute.”

The most powerful exploration of human evil in Briar Rose comes in Yolen’s portrayal of the effects of the Holocaust, first in Becca’s visit to Fort Oswego and then in her trip to Poland. At Samantha’s place, Becca learns about the prejudice felt by the high school students and their parents towards the refugees in Oswego. They believed the rumours that the refugees, and there were nearly a thousand of them were living high at the taxpayers’ expense. However, after they saw that the refugee camp in Oswego was surrounded by barbed wire as if these refugees were prisoners, some of the students came every afternoon to bring some snacks. Through this, Yolen suggests that America still has prejudgment and preconceived notion towards those refugees.

Josef’s narrative depicts the horror of the Holocaust, and the full potential of human evil. Josef’s story records many examples of human suffering. For instance, the predisposition against Jewish people which hurt Alan, the death of Alan, Josef’s own experiences in Sachenhausen, the labour camp with its medical experiments that sacrifice living people, and most horrendously, the gassing of one thousand people per day at Chelmno.

Throughout the novel, Yolen questions the possibility of fairytale ‘happily ever after’ endings. Gemma’s fairy story never ended happily ever after except for the princess Briar Rose and her own little girl. There had always been something decidedly odd about the whole telling. In Gemma’s story, everyone, other than the prince who wakes the princess with a kiss and Briar Rose and afterwards their child,  everyone else is still under the bad witch’s curse and sleeps on.

Briar Rose evokes all of the emotion that a true fairy tale should. The language is very moving, describing events in World War II in words that are both shocking and uplifting, while still preserving something of a fairy tale’s magic. The contrast between the fairy tale and Becca’s visit is startling. The passing off of ordinary and horrifying events, discovers the real basis of her grandmother’s story.

Briar Rose tells a story about the Holocaust that communicates all of the horror in a way that maintains a sense of hope that even the worst of circumstances can sometimes be overcome. However, the fictional happy ending for Becca is brought back to reality by the simple facts of the extermination that took place at Chelmno and the truth that history gives no true happy endings, as Magda said, “Truth is never tidy. Only fairytales.”

The hopeful tone of the book is balanced in the Author’s Note with a brief and sober look at the facts of Chelmno. This strengthens the fairy tale aspect of the book itself. A fairy tale may have a happy ending, but the truth behind one is not as happy. Briar Rose succeeds by conveying both of these points, in a story that is powerful and at times uplifting, but ultimately wrenching.




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