I am Briar Rose


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She thought of Gemma lying in the bed, eyes closed, whispering “I am Briar Rose.”

Sleeping Beauty. How could she think of that? Gemma’s fine hair had escaped its careful braiding and fanned out against the pillow. Not a bit of the red still showed. Her skin, like old parchment on a bone stretcher, had been map-like; the careful traceries of her age showing where and how she had lived. Except that none of them knew where she had lived as a child. Only that she had come to America before the Second World War.

“Maybe, Daddy, maybe she really did live in a castle somewhere in Europe. Like the Rothschilds, you know.”

Her father, a handsome, balding man, his face still firm under the chin and moustache a white parenthesis around his mouth, smiled and shook his head. “No castle, sweetheart. That’s just one of Gemma’s stories.”

“She seemed awful certain of it.”

“Nothing about your grandmother was certain,” he said. “Not her date of birth, not the country of origin – not even her name.”

How does this extract from Briar Rose introduce us to the important ideas in Yolen’s novel?

In your response, make detailed reference to your prescribed text.

Prescribed text: Briar Rose, Jane Yolen, 1992

Context is given for the extract and a thesis is connected to this
Discussion of the central issues of the extract
Connections between the fairy story and the reality in the novel are discussed using direct references

riar Rose is a novel that examines a number of issues relating to identity, the links between the past and the present, the effects of war and the power of stories. Jane Yolen uses the fairy tale ‘Briar Rose’ (or ‘Sleeping Beauty’) as an allegory of what happened to Gemma in World War Two. The extract that sets up some of these important issues in the novel occurs as Gemma is dying in hospital. Even in her last moments, she is still talking about the Briar Rose story and details of her life before coming to America are still shrouded in mystery.

The Briar Rose story is the central motif in the novel. Gemma uses this story as an allegory of her own life and the way she wants other people to think about her, as someone who was rescued and who fought against great evil. As she is using it to tell her family the little she remembers of her early life, she changes the story to suit her own reality. There are many points of connection between the fable and what happened to Gemma: she has red hair like the princess, and “Princess” is her nickname; the action around Chelmno takes place in forests with a lurking sense of gloom and danger (“living in the belly of the wolf”); there are woodcutters, cottages, good and bad villagers and so on; there is a ‘prince’ and someone who rescues the ‘princess’ from eternal sleep with the kiss of life. However, the bad fairy of t
Traces the quest in the novel

Identity is explored using words from the extract (map)

Note how each paragraph has a topic sentence to guide the paragraph

This paragraph deals with links between the past and present

Looking more deeply at anti-war themes

Each statement is linked to an example

List of examples linked to the responder (we) offers even more substantial support
he fable becomes the German enemy, described as the “angel of death”, wearing “big black boots and silver eagles on her hat”. The thorns of the roses surrounding the castle are the barbed wire around the death camps and the castle is the gas chamber. The princess does not fall asleep after pricking her finger on a needle, but because of the “mist”, or gas. These changes are important to Gemma’s story, as they help Becca, and the reader, uncover the truth and understand what really happened to Gemma.

In fairy stories, there is often a prince on a quest. In Briar Rose, we see ‘Prince’ Josef on a quest in the forest to survive and to do what he can to help others. More importantly, Becca is on a quest to rescue her grandmother’s identity from oblivion. It seems as though the secret of Gemma’s identity has died with her and it is up to Becca to take the clues she has been given (Gemma’s version of the Briar Rose story and the box of documents and photos) and solve the mystery. Her grandmother’s lined face is the “map” of all she has been through and Becca must read this code for hardship and suffering and turn it into something meaningful and real about Gemma’s life. When Becca does this, she knows more about her family and herself and is able to “reclaim our heritage”, lost during the war years.

The novel shows us the importance of connections. Becca’s identity is bound up in knowing who her grandmother really was and she must find the truth behind Gemma’s secrets before she can link the past to the present. When talking about his own quest to find his birth mother, Stan says, “What’s past is prologue”, meaning that we cannot really understand ourselves now unless we know where we have come from. This is complicated for Becca, because Gemma had so little information to leave behind and it becomes clear from the contents of the box that what she did know, she chose to keep secret. In the novel, the past hides many secrets, good and evil, just as the castle in the Briar Rose story holds the secret of the sleeping princess, locked in the past by the wicked fairy. The prince in the story revives the princess, she wakes to present time and the truth is revealed. In the same way, Becca finds the true story of her grandparents’ bravery and hardship and understands more about how she and her family have come to be where they are in the present.

Yolen wants her readers to know about the ways war affects people’s lives. We know that the war was a turning point for Gemma – it marks the time she left Europe to seek safety and a new life in America, and we know that she cannot remember, or refuses to say, very much about her life before the war. War causes great upheaval in people’s lives. It separates families, as we learn from Josef’s experiences, it destroys families, as we learn through the death of the Avenger, and it can turn people into cowards or heroes. Yolen uses the horror of the death camps to show that people can choose right or wrong, good or evil, just like in fairy tales. We learn that the villagers around Chelmno were cowards, taunting the prisoners and keeping silent about the terrible secret of the mass exterminations; we learn that the prison guards chose to act cruelly and brutally; and we learn that others chose to risk their lives to do whatever they could to help others and save even a single life.

Final idea about the power of stories

Brief conclusion which sums up ideas and connects these to the extract

The novel is a story about stories. There is the story of Briar Rose and there is Gemma’s version of this through which she constructs her identity, linking herself to the fable but also telling the truth about her life at the same time. We learn about the power of stories to affect people’s lives. The partisan group rely on stories every night to keep them focused and brave and to assert their own particular identities in a group where no-one uses his or her real name, because to reveal one’s true identity in war can be dangerous. The Avenger, being young, tells nursery stories, others tell stories from their home countries and cultures and Josef tells the powerful stories he remembers from his acting days. The novel also uses the features of a fairy story. It starts with a mystery, a problem to be solved – who is Gemma? The young heroine, Becca, takes up the challenge and sets out on her quest to discover the truth. Along the way, she meets people who help her and she learns some important things about herself. At the end, there are two happy-ever-after endings, the obvious one where the mystery of Gemma’s identity is solved and the implied happy ending, where Becca and Stan fall in love. At the start of the novel, we also learn of the happy ending that Gemma made for herself by going to America. Even though she had lost her ‘prince’, she made a successful life for herself, her daughter and her granddaughters, which is why she is able to say, when telling the Briar Rose story, that “the curse doesn’t work.”

This extract, therefore, allows us to see connections between the fairy story The Sleeping Beauty and a horrifying reality. Through this connection, we also see the power of story to guide and reveal truths.

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