A fairy tale fractured by prejudice and the pitfalls of adolescence, Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a mesmerizing update of Hassidic legends, with a bit of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” thrown in for good measure.
Set in the early years of the 20th century, Rossner’s story begins at the edge of a tiny town named Dubossary, where a Jewish population lives a simple life next to a forbidding, dark forest. Sisters Liba and Laya have grown up on the outskirts of this community, and when their parents are called away, they learn something shocking about their family. Their parents are shape-shifters, and the girls have inherited their power. Liba can turn into a bear, and Laya into a swan.
We talked to Rossner about writing in both poetry and prose (one form for each sister), the importance of food and creating the stories she wishes her younger self could read.
What kind of folk tales did you grow up with and how did those stories influence this book?
I grew up on a steady diet of fairy tales, having been born and raised in Miami, Florida, (three hours from Orlando and Disney World) and my mom also read to me from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tale books that were collections of fairy and folk tales from around the world. But more than all of that, I was raised on Hassidic tales, many of which have magic and supernatural elements to them. From the Wise Men of Chelm to Isaab Bashevis Singer’s stories, Jewish folk tales were a large part of my childhood and my father, who worked in Jewish education, was great storyteller. He often told stories as part of the speeches he made and the lectures he gave. I only wondered why I never found any of these magical tales in any traditional fantasy novels: Why were there no Jewish fantasy novels? Why did I never see Orthodox Jewish teens like myself as the heroines of their own fairy tales? As I got older I was determined to write these stories so that my daughter would be able to someday see someone like herself in a fantasy novel that drew on the stories and tales of my childhood.
Readers might not know much of the history of the real town of Dubossary, which you mention in the author’s note. Do you find its history inspirational? Or tragic?
The truth is that I didn’t know much about the history of the real town of Dubossary either. I was simply looking for a place to set my tale, and I decided to start reading some of my family’s genealogy books (which I had never read before). I found a poem online that was part of the Dubossary Yizkor (Memorial) book that echoed some of “Goblin Market,” it mentioned that the town was full of orchards and vineyards, berries, grapes, pears, apples and melons, and I knew where I had to set my book. On the one hand, I was inspired to write a story about Jewish resistance not set during the time of the Holocaust, and I was proud that the Jews from the town that my ancestors came from fought back and made sure that a pogrom didn’t happen in their town. On the other hand, starting in September 1941, the Nazis came to Dubossary and forced 600 Jews into the main synagogue and burnt it to the ground, after which they systematically wiped out the entire Jewish population. Today, there are 18,000 Jews buried in mass graves in the forests surrounding the town and only about 100-150 Jews left from the town. It is a bittersweet tale, but I wanted to bring to life the shtetl as it was before tragedy befell the town, to tell a story of courage, resistance and resilience, not a tale of tragedy.
Let’s talk about writing prose and poetry in the same book. First of all, what drove this choice? Did you alternate each style as you wrote, just as the chapters alternate? Did you find yourself liking one style versus the other while writing?
I originally set out to write the book in prose. But when I was trying to differentiate Laya’s voice from Liba’s voice I started to hear Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” melodies in my head—the plodding sound of the grandfather or the wolf, and the flute-like sound of the bird, and I realized that I needed to do this in literary form. I was a poet first, well before I decided to try my hand at writing fiction, and I love a good novel-in-verse, so I thought, why not a novel written half in verse and half in prose? It’s not something that we see very often, and it just felt right. I was really excited to play with this new format and see where it took me. I think that writing Laya’s sections was more fun, and it was nice to take a break from Liba’s sections and write a little poetry in-between. It kept things interesting.
This book is full of Yiddish phrases and Hebrew words, which gives the story a feeling of authenticity and place. How did you choose what words to employ and when to employ them?
When I realized that the book was going to be set in the shtetl of Dubossary I knew that I had to put Yiddish into the book. You can’t write about turn-of-the-century Eastern Europe without including some Yiddish. I was very much inspired by the way Laura Ruby used the Polish language in Bone Gap, and I really wanted to do the same kind of thing for Yiddish (and Hebrew) in my novel. As I looked up phrases that I knew had a good Yiddish equivalent, I often found that the right word popped into my head before I had even completed a search on the internet. My grandmother’s voice came to me as I worked, and this book is dedicated to her, for she taught me all the Yiddish I know. But I also spent hours reading lists of various colorful Yiddish phrases and spread them all out around me so that when the right opportunity arose I could use a choice phrase in the novel so that I would be incorporating as many authentic Yiddish turns of phrase into the book as possible. To me, more than anything, I hope this book helps keep the Yiddish language alive in the minds and hearts of readers.
Food is important in this story. The sisters each crave different foods and are heavily affected by them. Is this rooted in the part of the world the book is set in? Did you use food as a way to impact the story?
Food is a really important part of Jewish culture. Every holiday, every weekend (Shabbat) is centered around shared meals, customs and symbolic foods. Besides that, I am a foodie myself and my first book was actually a cookbook. Anyone who has eaten at my table knows that about me, so it was only natural that food should find its way into the books that I write. I think that food is very much a part of how we define ourselves culturally, and “Goblin Market” itself is a poem filled with descriptions of luscious fruit—I love books that are super evocative, where you can see and smell and taste the world that is being described, and I was determined to make sure that readers could literally taste my book on their tongues.
Tell me about writing a story centered on two sisters with two very different perspectives. Was it difficult to unify these perspectives into one story? Are there parts of how they’re tied together that you’re most proud of?
I think that a lot of the work of being a sibling and being part of a family is forgiveness. There is a lot of petty stuff that happens on a day-to-day basis between siblings, and from a very young age we are constantly forgiving and forgetting. The bigger challenge is what happens when we grow up and grow apart. What happens when your siblings start to make important life choices that you don’t agree with? This is something that happens in every family. And I think the parts I’m most proud of are the places where the sisters have to work hard to forgive each other and to love each other despite how different they are. It’s a hard lesson, and one that I think is really universal. The places where the sisters love and fight for each other even though they don’t agree with the choices that the other is making are the parts that I hope come across as nuanced and real—those are the parts I’m most proud of.
What are some of the defining elements of folklore that comes from Russia, the Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe that were inspirations here?
I started with the Hassidic folk tales I was familiar with—taking a man who dances in a bear cloak to save a fellow Jew (from the tale of the Shpoler Zaiyde) and making the leap from that to a man who can actually turn into a bear wasn’t that hard! But there are magical elements to a lot of Hassidic tales—they are just not as well-known as traditional fairy and folk tales. I discovered that the bear is the national symbol of Russia and that in the Ukraine, it is traditional to dance in a bearskin (head and all) to welcome in the new year. There is a line in “Goblin Market” that compares one sister’s neck to that of a swan, and that was the jumping off point for me to making Laya and her mother into actual swan-maidens. Russian, Ukrainian and Moldavian folklore are chock-full with swan-maiden and swan-prince tales, often in epic poems called blyini.
When you think back on writing the book, are there parts of the writing process that stand out in your mind?
Once the bare bones of the novel were finished, it took me many drafts to get it to the place that it’s at now. But to a certain degree—revising is kind of my favorite part. I’d say: “Ooh, I need to put Yiddish into my novel,” and then start from the beginning and braid the threads throughout. Then my agent suggested I make the woods creepier and add more of a sense of foreboding, so that was fun, too—going back in and making the woods come to life, while setting the stage for more of a sense of fear and uncertainty in the air. Writing is rewriting. The hardest part of working on a project for me is getting down the bones. Painting in the muscles and sinews and fleshing out the skin is the fun part.
You also mention in the author’s note that you’re a great fan of both history and fantasy. Are there other works out there that you would recommend for readers itching for similar tales?
I think that the further you go back in history the more mythological or fantastical historical fiction becomes. Mark Noce writes books that are categorized as historical fiction (Between Two Fires and Dark Winds Rising) but that skate on the edge of myth and have fantastical elements to them. J. Kathleen Cheney’s The Golden City series is one of my favorites and one that truly combines a sense of history and fantasy, Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville does this as well, and Naomi Novik’s most recent Spinning Silver is absolutely magical, but firmly rooted in elements of history.
Okay, be honest . . . would you rather be a bear or a swan?
I think that I am most like Liba in my personality, but, if given a choice, I would much rather be a swan. Perhaps it is because I am very un-swan-like in reality. I think there is a little of me in both sisters, and like Liba, I often wish that I could be something other than myself—something a bit wilder and more free.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Sisters of the Winter Wood.
Author photo credit Tomer Rottenberg.