I first heard of the relatively new author Veronica Schanoes when her novella Burning Girls was nominated for a Nebula Award this year. “Among the Thorns” is a 2014 novelette, a re-envisioning of an anti-Semitic myth by the Brothers Grimm retold from the perspective of the Jewish “villain’s” daughter. You can read it for free on Tor.com, though I gladly forked over a dollar for the e-book version because I vastly prefer digital ink to online reading.
The prose is spare but profound and elegant. This story gripped me from the opening passage:
They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him.
I used to think that this was a metaphor, that they beat him with thorny vines, perhaps. But I was wrong about that.
They made him dance.
If there’s a more chilling opener to a story than that, I can’t think of what it could possibly be.
The protagonist Ittele is the daughter of a Jewish peddler and a watchful mother. Through the eyes of this family, we intimately empathize with how unstable and dangerous life was for Jews in seventeenth century Europe; how they were in danger in their dwellings; in danger while traveling; in danger when they gathered in large crowds, and in danger when alone. The narration brings this historical fact home in a powerful way, for even this family’s numerous precautions, how they planned every detail of their lives around safety from persecution, were not enough to save Ittele’s father, who was tortured and hanged by a lynch mob. A mob composed of acquaintances and customers and maybe even friends.
The first half of the story had me in tears, until the protagonist — then a child — proclaims that she will seek vengeance for her father.
She does not meditate on her desire for revenge, just knows her destiny with the same childish certainty that kids in normal circumstances may announce their favorite colors. And as she grows up, she also realizes that this will likely result in her suffering the same horrendous end as her father did.
This does not deter her from her course.
But the task ahead of her seems insurmountable, for the villain ultimately responsible for tearing her family apart possesses powers rendering him virtually omnipotent. The climax and resolution are imaginative, powerful, and steeped deeply in the Semitic mythos.
And along the way Ittele finds courage, learns the value of mercy, and finds the capacity for hope for the future.