At first glance, the town of Dubossary might appear to be a simple Jewish town at the edge of the woods. Pious and cheerful villagers bustle about in the snow, going to market and celebrating shabbas together. But for sisters Liba and Laya, who live in the forest outside of town, things aren’t quite as idyllic as they seem. Odd noises and rumors of wandering strangers suddenly make life in the woods a little less welcoming. Maybe the folk tales are true after all?
When Liba and Laya’s parents leave to visit a dying relative several towns away, they tell the girls two massive secrets. Both of their parents are shape-shifters—and so are they. Liba inherited her father’s bearlike shape and dark features; Laya has her mother’s swanlike beauty and light hair. These changes start to manifest as each sister’s feelings for each other, boys, tradition and temptation collide. When Laya is tempted by a group of young outsiders, Liba knows it’s up to her to protect her sister and, if necessary, call on the swan people to defend her and her sister from whatever lurks in the woods.
One very distinct stylistic choice separates Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood from all of the other history-meets-legend tales out there. Liba’s perspective is written in prose and Laya’s in poetry. Throughout the book, the differences between Liba’s stalwart, rule-abiding nature and Laya’s strong-willed, rebellious character play out beautifully as the two styles Rossner employs perfectly reflect each sister’s emotions. I was particularly drawn to Laya’s airy yet intense chapters, which seem to fly by in an instant.
Equally intriguing is how Rossner evokes the sensation of breaking the strict rules that govern the sisters’ existence. Dubossary’s identity is based on a very strict interpretation of Orthodox Judaism, which forbids men and women to physically touch before they are a couple. When Liba finds herself just thinking the natural thoughts of an 18-year-old woman, the reader feels the push-and-pull through Rossner’s prose. Amplifying this conflicting feeling is the uncontrollable shape-shifting transformations each sister starts to undergo, a touching and painful representation of what it feels like to grow up.
Rossner’s family came to America as a way to escape the pogroms and hatred visited upon Jews in Eastern Europe. She mentions in the (highly recommended) author’s note that she heard her grandmother’s voice in her head as she wrote The Sisters of the Winter Wood. There’s a lived-in, folklore feeling to this story, a mystical and ominous glow you can’t shake. However, at its heart, this is a novel about two sisters loving and understanding each other during a difficult time in life. And luckily, we get to take that wonderful, strange journey with them. Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a dreamlike ode to sisterhood, mythology and family that you won’t be able to put down.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Rena Rossner.