Students of literature tend to be very good about understanding one of the key elements in story-telling: newer works are often built on the foundations of older works that precede them. Whether they are built on Greek mythology, biblical allusions, or the journalist coverage of world history, modern fiction will always owe a small debt to what came before. Such is the case with author Rena Rossner’s debut novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood. Equal parts history, Jewish fairy tale, and classic poetry combined the book follows the successful narrative of two sisters who face crisis and overcome obstacles thanks in part to their love for each other.
The story begins in a cabin in the woods, where Liba and Laya’s parents have settled away to live as social pariahs, not just from their neighboring village of Dubossary, but also from their respective families. Their pasts remain a mystery to their daughters, but when a stranger comes to visit, much more is revealed than mother and father would’ve ever intended, including their true nature. As if caught in a real-life fairy tale, oldest daughter Liba wakes up in the middle of the night to witness her parents arguing passionately over the nature of the stranger’s visit, ending in their transforming into wild beasts – literally. Her father takes the form of a bear, her mother a swan, and Liba’s life (as well as the life of her sister) is forever changed.
Liba learns that she takes after her father and can also transform into a bear; sister Laya is more her mother’s daughter, and can take the form of a swan. What’s more, the two sisters are told that the grandfather they’ve never met is on his death-bed, and if he passes, their father will become the village leader of the hometown that had cast him out almost twenty years prior. The road is dangerous, however, especially for two young Jewish girls, and they are bade to stay behind and take care of each other at home.
Unfortunately, their cabin in the woods isn’t the safest place to be either, and everything begins to come apart just as both girls experience their first romantic encounters, seemingly at the worst possible time. There are kidnappings, murders, accusations and lies, and through it all, Liba and Laya’s bond of sisterhood is resilient, as they keep each other out of harm’s way.
The novel itself appears to be a unique retelling of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, which explains why all of Laya’s chapters are written as though she thinks in poetic verse, contrasting the traditional and prosaic fashion of Liba’s traditional narration. Mixed into the plot suggested by Rossetti’s classic poem is the very real history of the European pogroms that threatened Jewish existence with constant persecution for imagined crimes based on suspect evidence. By doing so, Rossner takes what might have been a lighthearted and clichéd account of two magical sisters finding romance, and makes it something more. We know the stark reality facing these young girls is as dangerous as their narration suggests, because history has told us so, and the result is a story that’s all the more gripping.
What really fascinates with Rossner’s work is her dedication to incorporating Jewish tradition in her work. The ability to celebrate a culture and acknowledge the anti-Semitism that seeks to extinguish it is a serious balancing act, and at the same time the reader doesn’t feel lost in that commentary. At heart, The Sisters of the Winter Wood is still a beautiful coming-of-age tale with plenty of lighthearted moments featuring first kisses, petty squabbles, and sisterly love. The references to Jewish custom only enhance and enrich the work, making it a genuinely enjoyable read for younger and older audiences alike.