Study Guide

Briar Rose Summary

By Jane Yolen

Briar Rose Summary

Once upon a time—sorry, we couldn't resist—there was a little old lady who was super into telling bedtime stories. Well, technically, it was just one bedtime story, but she must have told it at least a thousand times. Briar Rose, which was Grandma Gemma's remix of Sleeping Beauty, was beloved by her granddaughters—especially Becca, who is the baby in her family.

Now 23, Becca's all grown up, and Grandma Gemma, who's in a nursing home, is nearing the end of her life. She seems taken with the notion that she herself is Briar Rose, and insists she really did come from a castle, just like in the story.

Is this an old woman's ranting and raving? Becca doesn't think so. Gemma makes Becca solemnly swear to find the castle, which is her "inheritance." Then she dies, so Becca's pretty much obligated to follow through on her promise.

Becca gets to thinking about that bedtime story Grandma had told her so many times. There were a few minor details that were…well, kind of untraditional. What was up with the way that everyone in the entire kingdom fell asleep forever, for example? Shouldn't they have woken up at some point? And how come Becca never noticed how bizarre this bedtime story was until now?

Briar Rose was a far cry from Goodnight Moon, that's for sure.

When a box of Gemma's old things, including some photos and an immigration form, surface, Becca begins to wonder if Gemma's story could relate back to her experience in the Old World. The family had thought that Gemma, who was Jewish, came to the U.S. before the beginning of World War II, but her documents suggest that she arrived in 1944. So Becca heads to Poland to investigate further.

Like you do.

With Magda, her jolly Polish translator, Becca makes her way to Chelmno, a tiny town that was the site of a terrible extermination camp during the war. All of Gemma's clues point there, but it's literally a dead end: everyone says that no female Nazi prisoners made it out of Chelmno alive.

But then Becca and Magda happen upon a man called Josef Potocki, who tells them that one woman did in fact make it out of Chelmno. You'll never guess who!

But based on the story so far, you should probably guess that it's Gemma.

Josef, who is now a very old man, gives Becca the skinny on what really happened to Gemma, who had never told her family about her life in Europe. Turns out that he and a band of partisans rescued her from the extermination camp, where she was the sole survivor amongst thousands of Jews who were gassed to death. Lucky for Gemma, right?

Josef tells Becca about his own experience as a gay man who was imprisoned in a work camp; Gemma's story as a Jewish woman who escaped death; and the story of Becca's grandfather, Avenger.

The latter was not a Marvel superhero, we're very sorry to say. That would have been rad, though.

Satisfied that she has fulfilled her promise to her grandmother, Becca heads back to the good ole USA, where she intends to lord her findings over her family, who all thought that she was crazy for believing Gemma. She also finds time to smooch her hot boss, who happens to be waiting for her at the airport. You just know they live happily ever after.