I’m not a fan of fantasy and truthfully when I read the blurb of The Sisters of the Winter Wood, I wondered why I had added it to my list and who had recommended it to me.
But because we are all glued to Game of Thrones and witnessed strange transformations there and Kafka’s cockroach has survived many generations and yiddishkeit holds a fascination for me, not to mention any story about European shtetls and persecution of Jews, I began the story of Liba and Layla, daughters of the Rebbe Berman in Dubossary, a town between Moldavia and the Ukraine. Dubossary conjured for me the pictorial landscape of Marc Chagall’s Russian hometown of Vitebsk in Russia with Chassidim, travellers, farm animals and lovers.
The sisters, temporarily abandoned by Mami and Tati, as occurs in many coming- of- age novels, must fend for themselves, while the parents deal with pressing familial obligations in Kupel nearby. However before departing, Mami imparts strange information to her very different daughters, Liba, tall, dark and big-boned, and Laya, graceful and long- limbed: Liba is part bear like her father and Layla is part swan. This unsettling knowledge complicates the lives of the almost 18 and 16 year old adolescents.
With many authors, we might guffaw and stop the read immediately, but in the hands of Rossner,in spite of this being her debut novel, she has tweaked our interest and curiosity in the plight of the sisters, living at the edge of the forest, all ready not totally accepted by the town yentahs : because Mami is a convert to Judaism, not always covering her hair.
The story is told from the dual perspectives of the girls who know themselves to be Jews. They are aware of their lineage from the Berre Rebbe and the lore that has marked them as special; Tati insists that the young men in the village are not to be considered suitable marriage prospects. But in most tales of becoming, love plays a major role. Laya is enchanted by Fedir, a “ goy ” who along with his handsome brothers travel from town to town, selling fruit; their origins Rossner tells us in an Afterward, is derived from Christine Rossetti’s Goblin Market wherein the protagonists’ names also happen to be Laura and Lizzie.
Liba, too, experiences her first sexual awakenings with Dovid Meisel, the local butcher’s son, whose entire family reaches out to her. Aware and perplexed by her difference, Liba reflects, “I feel his breath on my neck and I think, we breath the same air. We are not as different as we seem…we believe in the same god, practice the same religion, like the same food, laugh at the same jokes. I want a normal family and a home where I don’t need to fear the woods around me.”
In parallel stories, the girls face infatuation and love. But along with this comes anti- semitism aroused by Fedir and the townsfolk. Based on actual events that occurred in Dubossary in March in 1903 , two non- Jewish victims were discovered drained of blood, one in a fruit garden. Often to explain terrible events in times passed, Jews were harassed, slandered, and their blame attributed to the myth that Jews baked matzoh with the blood of non- Jews. In Rossner’s novel as in the real life event, the Jews of Dubossary organized, fought back and prevented a progrom. But overhanging antisemitism was and continues to be real.
In both the truth and fiction, Jews in nearby villages were not so lucky. Five hundred in the Kishinev area were murdered, hundreds injured, their stores and homes destroyed. Between 1880-1920 there were over 1300 pogroms in the Ukraine. And in 1940, back again in Dubossary , the Nazis rounded up 600 Jews in the synagogue and burnt them. The remaining 6,000 were lead into the nearby woods and shot. Not surprisingly, Rossner dreamed of the ghosts of the town, personally effected, as her lineage comes from Dubossary , fortunately a great uncle having escaped to America years earlier.
Rossner was raised with Chassidic tales such as the Shpoler Zeiyde, Russian superheroes such as “ bogatyrs”, fairytales such as Snow White and Rose Red, and Jane Yolen’s Holocaust retelling of Briar Rose, later she was influenced by Jonathan Foer Safran’s Everything Is Illuminated and others. To sweeten the dark violence of these tales in her recreation of the events in The Sisters of the Winter Wood, Rossner includes the sweetness of her own Romanian grandmother’s expressions so that every few pages underlines her background: with Yiddish evocations such as “ zichrono livracha (May her/ his memory be a blessing)… shidduch (arranged marriage)…niggunem (melodies)…shaynah madele( lovely girl)…oyam ( world).” When dreaming of varenikes, Liba speculates, “ They are soft and plump and the onions and gribenes she serves them with are always so crispy. Her ( a neighbour) borscht is thick and creamy and she never skimps on the marrow bones that flavour it. There will be sweet wine, too, and Mami already brought over some of her flakiest rugelach. I lick my lips in anticipation.”The melding of Yiddish and the description of Jewish foods works to augment the warmth of a strong tradition in a village where Jews are not trusted, merely tolerated, yet there is vibrancy in their presence that recalls our sense of shetl life before the wars. The novel is an echo of significant influences that have shaped both Jewish life and Rossner’s growing up.
When Laya disappears with Fedir, Liba attempts to rescue her from the enchantment that has turned trees to fruit- bearing, overloaded with sweet succulent peaches, pears, plums, pomegranates, apricots … dizzying in their smell, touch, lure. Yet their roots have encumbered Laya’s movement, for she is held captive, but a willing one because of love she imagines for her green eyed suitor. For Laya, being in love has altered the faces of Fedir and his brothers. Soon she will realize her mistake and like the veils in Blake’s Book of Thel and other poems, stories of maturation, she eventually sees clearly, understanding the forest for what it is.
Libya’s comprehension of love and life is less dreamy, as she learns how to arrest her transformation to avenging bear: by calming herself, focusing on water, ensuring she does not respond emotionally.That knowledge will come to Laya later so the girls can learn to command their metamorphoses.
However, what is most difficult to accept is the girls’ transformation to bear and swan. But even Libya’s awareness of this strangeness mirrors our own as readers when she murmurs, “It’s a dream…it must be a dream. A fairytale coming to life in my head, nothing more…maybe I’m sleeping…” When she observes her own powerful muscles and paws with claws, she marvels, “ None of what I am, what we are, makes any sense at all.”
Yet one might consider the many Russian folktales about bear- men and women the traditional donning of brown fur cloaks at the time worn to celebrate the new year and chase away malignant spirits. So too, Chassidic tales of Tati’s great grandfather’s kindness of averting persecution of other Jews as the Shpoler Zeiyde, as the retelling of his dancing with a bear in a contest to win the freedom of destitute Jews forced to pay rent and taxes on time. Liba explains, “ My mother once told me that my great grandfather became a bear because of great need…we can all become what we need to be in a time of danger.” And so we recall modern stories in which a mother somehow lifts a car off the body of her child pinned beneath or other extraordinary measures to save a loved one.
And in a similar moment of amazement, we might recall the mother of dragons in The Game of Thrones calling her babes home. And although we might not accept Zeus changing himself into a swan, or magical raindrops to impregnate Danae, we do not doubt him as a god of power. Or even the ability of Captain Marvel to propel herself into space or transform her arms to efficient attack machines. And what do we make of Spider-Man or Batman possessed by the power of transformation in times of greatest need? Magic is magic, and the possibility of transforming to another form, ice to water to gas, or human to superhero or animal is- at the very least- provocative. So we watch, read, transfixed.
Metaphors and similes in our language also allow for comparisons between the mundane and the exceptional so we accept that we might be as hungry as a bear or as sly as a cat, ready to trick or outwit our opponents. The woods around us can be internalized or external, alternatively inviting or threatening, suggestive that there are forces, spirits that await in the darkness. Why else do children insist on nightlights at bedtime?: to prevent witches or goblins from dragging them away. This is Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief that permits our leap to imagine and to engage in other realms.
The notion of transformation as presently witnessed in the films based in Stan Lee’s comics is welcomed by audiences, perhaps as an anecdote to the craziness of life. And even today as congresswomen cast aspersions on our people, or riots in Charlottesville where even the U.S. president does not disparage or condemn the white suprematists, terribly, antisemitism has not disappeared. Not in the bear dancing contests, the attack of blood letting for matzoh, or being pushed to the edge of forests, whether real or imaginary, it has endured. Sadly, that image of Chagall’s diaspora Jew emerges as I write this, the outcast traveller’s pekkalah on his shoulder, searching for a place to live freely without harassment. Liba’s statement comes to mind, “ Being a Jew means always changing- staying true to what you are, but adapting to your surroundings.”
Rossner gives us a fairytale that is underpinned with history and the reality of Jewish discrimination we continue to face. Would that we were like the sisters able to transform and learn how to defeat the biases that continue to confound us .
Also see The Globe and Mail (Ontario Edition), Canada Mar 16, 2019 O8 French journalist and novelist latest book Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us) by MARC WEITZMANN