Briar Rose Notes

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Context 1: The historical context - the Jewish Holocaust
The word holocaust originally meant a sacrifice wholly consumed by fire; now it is most commonly used to mean: The (period of the) mass murder of the Jews (or of other groups) by the Nazis in the war of l939-45 (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). During World War II the anti-semitic German government under Chancellor Adolf Hitler decided on a "final solution" to what it saw as "the Jewish problem". This was to set up death and work camps so that this group - which the government saw as a threat to national unity - would be eliminated. Death was to be the final solution. Other groups were also targeted - among them gypsies, homosexuals and political and religious dissidents. The evidence is that the victims were told only that they were going to work as slave labour. They were taken by train to a network of camps established in Germany and Poland. Most were then gassed to death, although at the work camps many did survive for some time. The word 'holocaust' was appropriate, for the vast majority of bodies were eventually burned, although many ended in mass graves. The best estimate from the evidence is that about six million were killed. Students in the Sydney region can view a range of evidence displayed at the Sydney Jewish Museum - Museum of Australian Jewish History and the Holocaust, 148 Darlinghurst Road. Video interviews with survivors - many financed by film-maker Steven Spielberg - can be viewed, and documents, artefacts and photographic evidence may be studied (telephone no: 02 9360 7999). Such appalling and tragic events have inspired a range of movies, fiction and memoirs. Films include the factualShoah, the fiction Schindler's List and the fantasy Life is Beautiful. Memoirs include Ifthis is a Man by Primo Levi. Australian writers on the holocaust include Lily Brett, The Auschwitz Poems, and Mark Raphael Baker, The Fiftieth Gate. Both Brett and Baker are children of survivors.

Narrative structure
Briar Rose has a complex narrative structure. Yolen interweaves at least three major strands into her plot, and uses voices of different types to add an interesting variety to the narrative. The voices of Becca and her sisters, of Josef Potocki, of the priest, Father Stashu, of Magda, of Stan and of her parents recount or question parts of the total story. Two parallel stories are developed simultaneously: Gemma's whole version of the Briar Rose tale which Becca recognises to be a metaphor for Gemma's life (p 17), and the narrative of Becca's determined quest to make sense of this story after her grandmother's death. A third strand, Becca's developing relationship with fellow-journalist Stan, is presented more lightly, but suggests that, for Becca, a happy ending is likely. Above all, it is Gemma's story. Gemma's voice reaches the reader most through her own unusual retelling of the old Briar Rose fairy tale. This is so different in details from the traditional version that visiting children are outraged. This story comes to the readers at one remove, through the italicised memory segments in which Becca recalls her grandmother's voice. As in all good fairy tales, the older sisters, if not exactly "wicked", are at times unsympathetic to hearing this same favourite story repeated countless times. It is the youngest of the three sisters who shows the required goodness and empathy. To her the storytelling is not only the essence of her childhood, but also the essence of her grandmother's nature, with its hints at her mysterious and aristocratic origins. The placement of segments of the never-completed fairy story at intervals through the narrative adds suspense and mystery to the novel. More importantly, the fairy tale references seem to deepen the story of Gemma's Holocaust sufferings and relate them to the whole cultural tradition - of good and evil, of suffering and rescue, and of seeking and eventually finding. Becca, in her quest to find "the...
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