Jewish Historical Fiction discussion

The Sisters of the Winter Wood
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Jewish Mythology, Slavic Fairytales and History

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Mirta Trupp | 69 comments Mod
“The Sisters of the Winter Wood,” by Rena Rossner, unfolds in alternating chapters corresponding to the girls’ intrinsic personalities. Liba’s point of view is related in a straightforward and traditional format; Laya’s are in verse form. Set in Imperial Russia, the family lives in the outskirts of Dubossary, a Moldovan village on the border with Ukraine. The inspired cover art brought to mind, “The Song of Ice and Fire” for you fans of George R. R. Martin. Rossner’s story is a retelling—a fan fiction, if you will—that pulls inspiration from many sources, including Jewish mythology and actual events that took place prior to the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. Fables and folktales, so rich in Slavic culture, easily influenced superstitious peasants and villagers who sought someone to blame for their plight and poverty. Because I am aware of what took place in the very real Dubossary, I was able to appreciate the imagery and fantasy the author utilized in this work.

There is history and culture here; mixed with a sort of Brothers Grimm dark narrative of goblins, shape shifters, and two confused teenage girls who are left alone to deal with things that go bump in the night. In addition, the author concentrates not only on the heightened tensions between Jews and non-Jews, but also between the Chassidim and their counterparts. I was uncomfortable with this particularly bitter portrayal. I kept thinking this is a shande fur die goyim. Which reminds me: the author generously sprinkles Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew throughout the book. Although a divided glossary is provided, the reader will have to know how to discern in between languages.

“The Sisters of the Winter Wood” is dark and violent. How could it not be? The pogroms that devastated the Jewish community prior to the Russian Revolution were the impetus for the mass exodus out of Eastern Europe But, like most fairytales, there are lessons to be learned and glimmers of truth. By combing magical realism and Jewish history, Rossner paints a vivid picture in keeping with the genre. Fairytales have always been based on conflict and the human need to find how we fit in the world. Some of scenes made me uncomfortable and the occasional use of modern-day verbiage made me cringe, but the author is successful in making her point. The power of transformation, of community, and of ancestral stories of valor and faith make a powerful statement. People become what they need to be in times of great need. I find that I must give the story a five-star rating and applaud the author for this impressive accomplishment to honor her ancestors and remember their history.

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Claudia Fabian | 4 comments Sounds fascinating!

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