Review of “The Sisters of the Winter Wood” by Rena Rossner

In an Author’s Note at the end of this story, the author tells us that she was inspired in part by the experiences of her own family, who emigrated from the area on the border between the Ukraine and Moldova following a series of pogroms against Jews in 1903. These violent anti-semitic riots, carried out with government approval, left many dead and wounded, with houses destroyed and stores pillaged.

The worst pogroms were in the years between 1881-1883 and 1903-1906, causing a mass exodus of Jews to other countries. Some two million Jews subjected to pogroms emigrated from the area between 1881 and 1914, mainly going to the United States. It was then that the author’s family left Dubrossary and Kupel, both towns featured in this story, and went to the “goldene medina” or “golden land” of America. The Jews who did not leave those two towns were finished off by the Nazis in 1940, who rounded them up, locked half of them in the main synagogue, burned it to the ground, and shot the other half and buried them in a mass grave. As the author writes in her Note, “the stories I drew upon . . . these were all things that happened.”

But this is not a Holocaust story. On the contrary, it is a story of Jewish resilience told in the form of a fairy tale. The story is based upon Jewish history, traditions, and language. There are three glossaries at the end of the book for Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ukrainian words and phrases included in the story. Most of these are defined as they are come up in the narrative, but the glossaries are a nice touch.

The plot centers around two sisters, Liba, 17, and Laya, 15. Liba’s narration is shown in prose and Laya’s in free verse. This variation in style is an apt representation of the differences between them: Liba is earthbound and practical, and Liba has her head in the clouds, always dreaming of flying away. Liba is devout, but Laya is not sure God even exists. She thinks: “We pray because it makes us feel like someone’s listening . . . even if they’re not.” The love they have for each other is fierce, and transcends their differences.

As the book begins, a stranger comes to their cottage and asks to speak to Tati, the girls’ father. The stranger says that Tati’s own father, who is the leader of the Jewish community in nearby Kupel, is dying, and Tati and Mami must go there right away. The parents decide not to take the girls since travel is so dangerous for Jews. Before they go, however, Mami tells each of the sisters secrets about their past and who they are, and begs them to watch out for each other. She tells Liba:

“Know this – anything is possible, Liba, anything. There are lots of different kinds of beasts in the world . . . . People are not always what they seem. And you are more powerful than you’ve ever dreamed. If you’re ever in danger, you can draw on that power to save your sister, and yourself.”

Likewise Mami tells both girls that if necessary, they must become what they need to be to protect themselves.

Indeed, later in the story, after all hell breaks loose, Liba avers that “being a Jew means always changing – staying true to what you are, but adapting to your surroundings. That’s what our people have always done.”

Discussion: The lives of the characters in this book are interwoven with magic, much of it seeming to come from the ancient forest next to the sisters’ cottage. The story most notably harkens back to Christina Rossetti’s narrative poem “Goblin Market,” to which it closely adheres. The author also draws upon the Russian folklore traditions which give prominent roles to bears and to swans. These three strands of folklore allow the author to use metaphor to show what is happening to the girls and to the village, from their transition through puberty and adulthood and the fears this inspires in each of the girls, to the incursion into their area of Anti-semites bent on destroying them.

Evaluation: This book about growing up, the inevitability of change, and the dangers in the wider world is well told. The author added interest and atmosphere by weaving into the story elements from folk and fairy tales.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Redhook, an imprint of Orbit, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2018

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1 Response to Review of “The Sisters of the Winter Wood” by Rena Rossner

  1. A modern fairytale? Or too dark? Then again, many fairy tales are quite dark.

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