On the darkest side of beautiful

Fairy tales were never meant to be pretty.  The original stories are a lot less about princesses in pink dresses than about evil mothers and vengeful fairies.  Briar Rose, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, would make the authors of those original dark stories proud.  It is a story about an average American family, an average girl, and the darkest part of the human heart.

Title: Briar Rose
Author: Jane Yolen
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale
Age: Older, mature Middle School students and High Schoolers

Summary and Review:

Rebecca is a young reporter who has always been very close to the red-headed grandmother she resembles.  Ever since she was a little girl, she has loved listening to the story her grandmother tells again and again–the story of Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty.  Rebecca can recite her grandmother’s version by heart, but loves to hear it again and again anyway.  But the story is full of mysteries, and the most important one guides this book: why does Rebecca’s grandmother insist that she is Briar Rose?  That she is a princess from another land, that she is Sleeping Beauty?

Rebecca makes a promise to her grandmother as she is dying that she will discover the truth, that she will learn what her grandma means when she claims to be Sleeping Beauty.  And while her older sisters mock her, Rebecca sets off on a life-changing journey and learns the remarkable story in her family’s past.

The idea that drives this book and the history behind it is brilliant.  It’s an incredible reinterpretation of the story of Sleeping Beauty, and this comes beautifully to light in the first half of the book.  If I can quibble with the book (and I guess I can…), I would say that I was a little disappointed with the second half.  It seemed very disjointed from the first half–I would have loved if the two stories were more interwoven.  However, that being said, this is a beautifully conceived story.  (More info about the plot below the spoiler line.)

I also felt that the “mystery” she is trying to solve—that is, how exactly her grandmother could have been Sleeping Beauty—is fairly obvious from very early on in the book.  (And I NEVER solve anything in a book until the end—I am a VERY clueless reader!)  So I found it distressing that I predicted most of the events way ahead of the main character, who in comparison seemed completely clueless and out of it.  I guess I would have preferred if it was just presented less as a mystery, but that’s just my take.  However, just in case there are those out there that like to hang on to the mystery, I have left the rest of my review below a spoiler line, although I will by no means give everything away!

SPOILER — SPOILER — SPOILER — SPOILER

Rebecca’s journey takes her to Poland, where she finds the proof that her grandmother came to America near the end of World War II, not before the war as her family had been led to believe.  What happened to her grandmother during the war and the people she met along the way pose the setting and the characters for a dark and violent Sleeping Beauty story.

Parents might want to know that despite the happy and very G-rated first half of the book, the story definitely takes a turn that will require a more mature reader for the end.  The violence of the concentration camps and death camps is described in a lot of detail, including descriptions of inmates being forced to do things like roll in the cold snow, mentions of the gay inmates being asked to “try” themselves in brothels and be castrated if they “fail”, talk about babies being killed and people being stuffed into trucks with their children and gassed to death, among other descriptions of the horror that was the Holocaust.  There is also some mention of having sex (although no description of this).  Nothing is gratuitous and it’s all within the range of acceptable for a young adult reader, but parents and teachers might want to read the book along with their children to provide support.

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