Essay on Briar Rose
Briar Rose is centered around one woman's Holocaust experience and intermixed with the classic fairy-tale, Sleeping Beauty. Yolen's uses of classic fairy-tale elements such as a prince and the curse of a long sleep are used to connect us to the horrors of the death camp Chelmno. The result is a story that is fresh and shocking as it tears away any of the numbness one may feel for another account of a Holocaust survivor. Suddenly the fairy-tale ideas of rescue and evil are invested with modern connotations.
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Jane Yolen takes an interesting tactic with the story. The odd chapters consist specifically of Gemma, the grandmother, telling her version of Sleeping Beauty to her grandchildren, mostly Becca. The even chapters, however, tell of Becca's search, after her grandmother's death, to find out her grandmother's real identity and origin.
It is evident that within the last half of Briar Rose that the alternating chapters merge. This gives rise to a realistation of a symbolic connection between the Holocaust story and Gemma's story of Sleeping Beauty. For example; in Sleeping Beauty, the curse that is bestowed upon the princess, her family and friends mirrors the curse of doom that the Nazis and Gustapo unleashed.. The mist that covers that castle and puts everyone to sleep symbolizes the gassing deaths of millions of people. The castle surrounded with roses that were covered with barbs that were impenetrable symbolized the barbed wire that held the condemned inside the prison camps. By the end of the novel, there is so much symbolism to notice it almost overwhelming. It is as if the symbolism clicks together for the reader at the same time Becca pieces it together for herself.
From the commencement of the novel, the reader receives clues that that the story of Sleeping Beauty is combined with and has an underlying truth of the Holocaust Gemma have been through. "Everyone likes a fairy story because everyone wants things to come right in the end. And even though to tell a story is to tell some kind of untruth, one often suspects that what seems to be untruth is really a hidden truth." This epitomizing the traditional fairy tale moral constructs created to teach children right from wrong; the consequences of obedience and disobedience; and belief that evil can be reckoned with and overcome. Gemma's tale of sleeping beauty is a basic symbolism of her ordeal with the Nazi's, where she emerged as the survivor, symbolised by a princess in Sleeping Beauty. A direct relation between the Holocaust and Sleeping Beauty is demonstrated when Gemma says to Josef "And I shall never forget the dark prince who kissed me awake".
Briar Rose is a exceptionally emotional novel. The language used by Yolen is very graphic, openly depicting the horrifying events that took place in the concentration camps, symbolised by the castle in Sleeping Beauty. The vivid depictions Josef Potocki gave of his struggle makes the reader feel as if they suffered right along with him. When Potocki told Becca and Magda of how he and his companions found Gemma, it came as bitter sweet news due to the horrific events that her grandmother had been through.
Yolen demonstrates an intertwining feature between the fairy-tale; Sleeping Beauty and the Holocaust experience which was undergone by Gemma. He uses the story of Sleeping Beauty to symbolise what actually happened in the concentration camps. The result of which is a novel depicting the atrocities of the Holocaust from a number of diverse perspectives and emotions.
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Once upon a time—sorry, we couldn't resist—there was a little old lady who was super into telling bedtime stories. Well, technically, it was just one bedtime story, but she must have told it at least a thousand times. Briar Rose, which was Grandma Gemma's remix of Sleeping Beauty, was beloved by her granddaughters—especially Becca, who is the baby in her family.
Now 23, Becca's all grown up, and Grandma Gemma, who's in a nursing home, is nearing the end of her life. She seems taken with the notion that she herself is Briar Rose, and insists she really did come from a castle, just like in the story.
Is this an old woman's ranting and raving? Becca doesn't think so. Gemma makes Becca solemnly swear to find the castle, which is her "inheritance." Then she dies, so Becca's pretty much obligated to follow through on her promise.
Becca gets to thinking about that bedtime story Grandma had told her so many times. There were a few minor details that were…well, kind of untraditional. What was up with the way that everyone in the entire kingdom fell asleep forever, for example? Shouldn't they have woken up at some point? And how come Becca never noticed how bizarre this bedtime story was until now?
Briar Rose was a far cry from Goodnight Moon, that's for sure.
When a box of Gemma's old things, including some photos and an immigration form, surface, Becca begins to wonder if Gemma's story could relate back to her experience in the Old World. The family had thought that Gemma, who was Jewish, came to the U.S. before the beginning of World War II, but her documents suggest that she arrived in 1944. So Becca heads to Poland to investigate further.
Like you do.
With Magda, her jolly Polish translator, Becca makes her way to Chelmno, a tiny town that was the site of a terrible extermination camp during the war. All of Gemma's clues point there, but it's literally a dead end: everyone says that no female Nazi prisoners made it out of Chelmno alive.
But then Becca and Magda happen upon a man called Josef Potocki, who tells them that one woman did in fact make it out of Chelmno. You'll never guess who!
But based on the story so far, you should probably guess that it's Gemma.
Josef, who is now a very old man, gives Becca the skinny on what really happened to Gemma, who had never told her family about her life in Europe. Turns out that he and a band of partisans rescued her from the extermination camp, where she was the sole survivor amongst thousands of Jews who were gassed to death. Lucky for Gemma, right?
Josef tells Becca about his own experience as a gay man who was imprisoned in a work camp; Gemma's story as a Jewish woman who escaped death; and the story of Becca's grandfather, Avenger.
The latter was not a Marvel superhero, we're very sorry to say. That would have been rad, though.
Satisfied that she has fulfilled her promise to her grandmother, Becca heads back to the good ole USA, where she intends to lord her findings over her family, who all thought that she was crazy for believing Gemma. She also finds time to smooch her hot boss, who happens to be waiting for her at the airport. You just know they live happily ever after.