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Literature / Briar Rose

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Briar Rose is a novel by Jane Yolen. It talks about the Holocaust, about a specific camp called Chelmo and the horrors of the only woman who survived it.

Becca's grandmother Gemma died; Becca loved her tale of "Sleeping Beauty", of the princess surviving a great mist. Over time, Becca starts wondering if there is a reason that her grandmother stuck to that story, and starts to investigate the lady's past. She soon encounters a man named Josef, who can explain where the fairy tale started and ended, meeting with real life.

Tropes in this novel include:

  • Artistic License – History: Jane Yolen sadly confirms in the afterword that no woman in real life ever escaped Chelmo. Gemma is a complete fictional construction.
  • Clean Pretty Reliable: There is a reason why Gemma calls it "the kiss of life"; Josef managed to rouse her from being suffocated, with minimal complications.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: How the Nazis treated their victims in Chelmo. The Jewish population were put into trucks and driven around, with the exhaust funneled into the holding areas. Then the Nazis would dump the bodies into shallow mass graves. It was only by sheer luck that Gemma lived long enough for Josef to give her CPR.
  • Fairy Tale Motifs: The imprisoned princess, the forest of thorns, the enchanted mist, true love's kiss... all take on extremely dark metaphorical meanings here.
  • Fractured Fairy Tale: Played for drama. Gemma tells her own version of Sleeping Beauty that differs from the traditional version in several key points. In her version, she identifies herself with Briar Rose.
  • Genre Savvy: Becca's friend gets freaked out when Gemma says that a mist wipes out most of the kingdom. She points out that most versions of the tale have a spindle and a great sleep. Becca thinks about this as an adult and realizes that there has to be more to the story for her grandmother to change it that much.
  • Genocide Survivor: Gemma was a Holocaust survivor, but due to her trauma could only talk about her experiences through Fairy Tale Motifs.
  • Heroic Bystander: Josef Potocki reveals that he helped revive Gemma with CPR when she was barely alive and lying in a mass grave. He was part of the resistance in the woods that went undercover to rescue
  • La Résistance: Josef was part of one, with a group of men. As a gay individual, he was targeted by the Nazis, so he decided to fight back and help rescue the survivors. Most of them were killed, including Gemma's husband. Josef is one of the few survivors.
  • The Reveal: Gemma was a Holocaust survivor from Chelmo. The fairy tale came from her pseudonym KSIĘŻNICZKA or "Princess" to help her cope with the trauma.
  • The Unreveal: We never learn Gemma's real name, or who she was before the war. Though as Becca reasons, it doesn't matter.
  • Wham Line: Gemma's story of Sleeping Beauty doesn't have a spindle; it has a mist that kills most of the kingdom. The fairy can only promise that the princess will survive, along with a handful of others. It scares Becca's friend, at the thought that the princess is a survivor rather than being freed from a mist.