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  • Marah Heikkila

A Fairy Tale Retold: Horrors, Humanity, and Identity

“Briar Rose” by Jane Yolen sets up a story that eventually reveals the character Gemma’s identity. Throughout the story, we find out about Gemma, the grandmother of Becca, her heritage and background, as well as see a bit of Becca’s life. The fairy tale descriptions and references aid Becca in trying to understand the pieces her grandmother left behind after dying - a few cards, a picture, and some documents.

The novel is separated by chapters, and rotating each time with a section that reflects back on Becca’s growing up with her grandmother, usually with small anecdotes. The setup of the novel itself is refreshing - it acts as almost a sort of fairy tale in that sense, especially with the sections and memories Becca has of Gemma telling her the story of Briar Rose.

The use of symbols and symbolic meaning were also another positive aspect of the novel. The fairy tale Briar Rose wasn’t simply just mentioned, but it became the center of the novel. It became a driving force to Becca figuring out why her grandma always called herself the princess, and why the people in the kingdom all fell asleep. The connection of the story to her grandmother’s mystery is riveting, particularly when Becca stumbles upon a Holocaust survivor who gives context about her grandmother.

Through it all, the tragic descriptions of the concentration camps, the mass murders, and the brutality paint a vivid picture for readers. Through that brutality and the description of Nazis and those condemned by them, Becca is able to discover her grandmother’s “true” identity.

Although the stories have elements of uncertainty and are bleak, there is a level of hope in them, showing the fairy tale aspect again. Fairy tales, at least the original versions, usually reward good and evil, and also have elements that are bleak. In this case, the novel has that too. It shows the brutal nature humanity can have, especially with descriptions of historical locations such as Auschwitz and the horrors that went on there.

The novel sets up a basis for people to want to question themselves, who they are, and where they fit in. Yolen’s writing is striking and captivating with each page. She creates a balance between Becca’s life, how she feels and her concerns, as well as her capacity to learn and to love. And that is a big takeaway. Those who read the novel may be able to learn more about how to love, how to learn and how to be human.

Briar Rose is 252 pages long and can be loaned through ILL or from your local library.

About the Author

According to her website,, Jane Yolen earned her master’s degree from University of Massachusetts. She is an author of over 200 books including “Sister Light, Sister Dark,” “Owl Moon,” and “The Devil's Arithmetic”. She was born in 1939, and her first experience with writing came early at 23 where she wrote a newspaper for her apartment with the help of her mother. After college, she moved and became an editor in New York, her first book being a children’s book called “Pirates in Petticoats”.

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