Review: Burning Girls

vs_burning Veronica Schanoes’ 2013 novella Burning Girls, a nominee for the 2014 Nebula Award, is a re-envisioning of a fairy tale — though, to tell you which fairy tale would be a spoiler of mammoth proportions. Dark fantasy and real-world historical events form the backdrop of the story of one Jewish family’s emigration from eastern Europe to America at the turn of the 20th century. From the lyrical and chilling opening:

In America, they don’t let you burn. My mother told me that.

When we came to America, we brought anger and socialism and hunger. We also brought our demons. They stowed away on the ships with us, curled up in the small sacks we slung over our shoulders, crept up under our skirts. When we passed the medical examinations and stepped for the first time out onto the streets of granite we would call home, they were waiting for us, as though they’d been there the whole time…

Protagonist Deborah begins this story in Bialystok, Poland — a poignant choice for a setting, given the theme of the novella and the events that would transpire forty years later during the Bialystok Ghetto Uprising — and spends the summers learning healing, midwifery, and various arcane arts from her grandmother Hannah, who unabashedly calls their field witchcraft. Deborah learns healing and protection charms, methods of birth control, how to birth a baby, and eventually, how to fight demons. In contrast, her fair-haired younger sister Shayna follows in their mother’s path as a seamstress. Shayna’s beauty and intimacy with their mother frequently inspires envy in the main character.

Hannah sees how dark the future is for Jews in Poland, so Deborah uses her lucrative income to help finance the family’s one-way trip to the U.S. As the pogroms begin and the family’s illusory sense of safety shatters, Deborah learns that in exchange for their protection, Hannah has signed a contract with a lilit demon at a terrible cost.

Once they reach New York City, Deborah and Shayna continue to grow apart, the former developing a relationship with political activist Ruthie and the latter spending more and more time around dangerous men. Over the course of the following tragedies, we have to decide if what haunts this family is the supernatural lilit or the worst part of human nature.

Burning Girls is a thematically-driven story grounded in Jewish mysticism and the history of the labor rights movement. Between this atmospheric novella and the author’s more recent “Among the Thorns,” a novelette that transforms The Brothers’ Grimm “The Jew in the Thornbush,” Schanoes’ work will resonate with fans of fairy tale retellings and mythic fiction.

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