Short fiction review: Burning Girls by Veronica Schanoes
The story begins in Poland years before the internment of the Jews became routine. Deborah was born into a Jewish family, and her mother recognized immediately that Deborah was special. In this story, magic works in tandem with religion with no conflicts. When she is four years old, Deborah is sent to live with her grandmother for training.
Eventually, she is a fully trained witch, able to perform abortions with a brew, help women with their problems, and bind demons to prevent them from harming newborns. When a mob kills her family except for her sister, they flee to America and find work there in the sweat shops that need seamstresses.
Soon the sisters find themselves working in different worlds as the sister falls in with the wrong crowd, or more specifically, the wrong man. Then suddenly I exclaimed, “Wait. What? This is Rumplestiltkin‽”
The story at first buried me with culture and language that I was unfamiliar with. There were no explanations. The reader was simply supposed to either know Yiddish, or just roll with it. I rolled. The problem was that I didn’t know what the point of the story was.
Schanoes had Deborah telling, not showing, the story. On top of the cultural dump, this made the story difficult to get into. Eventually, the story finished with the backstory and set forth to America. The female characters were strong, but the men were cardboard cutouts. Only the women had vital roles in the story. This isn’t a bad thing, but it contributed to my being unable to relate to what I was reading.
The biggest disappointment was that all the backstory and world building was for a suddenly transparent fairytale retelling. I felt as if Schanoes had lost sight of the forest for the trees. Here was a world she had created that could have taken her anywhere, and she wasted it on somebody else’s ideas. Even the name she chose for the demon was derivative (Rumfeilstilizkahan).
I think this could have been a great story. Retold fairytales can work beautifully, as with Robin McKinley’s “Beauty” or Shannon Hale’s “Goose Girl.” But, in this case, the creative backstory and detailed world building felt wasted on a recycled tale. It could have been told just as well from a Mormon perspective, or a Hindi perspective, or any number of other faiths. The moment the recycled fairytale took over the narrative, the cultural background became meaningless.
In fact, as soon as Shanoe’s Rumfeilstilizkahan was dealt with, the story briefly returned to womens’ issues and had the sister die in a factory fire, but I no longer cared. The real story was already over. Everything else was just padding.
Release Date: June 19, 2013 (USA)
Publisher: Tor Books
Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (mild)
Language: 1 (mild)
Sexuality: 2 (abortions and unplanned pregnancies)
Violence: 1 (death, scary imagery)
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