Book Review | ‘The Sisters of the Winter Wood’

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The Sisters of the Winter Wood cover artA Magical Retelling of Jewish Resilience

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

Rena Rossner

Redhook

In an enchanted forest on the border of Moldova and Ukraine, near the shtetl of Dubossary, two teenage sisters — Liba and Laya — have lived a relatively peaceful life, complicated only slightly by the fact that their mother is a convert to Judaism.

But everything changes one night, when their father’s brother comes to visit. He informs the parents — while Liba eavesdrops — that their paternal grandfather, the great rebbe of the Berre Chasidim, is on his deathbed. The parents decide to travel to the father’s hometown to visit him, leaving their daughters behind. Before they go, they impart a family secret. Their father is from a family of Chasidim who can shape-shift into bears, while their mother is from a family descended from a Czar who can shape-shift into swans. The two sisters will also inherit these shape-shifting abilities — Liba into a bear and Laya into a swan.

Then, just after the parents leave, mysterious forces and visitors begin descending on the sleepy shtetl, while rumors of blood libel and pogroms swirl in the background.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a dreamy novel, inspired by Jewish folklore, culture and history, as well as the poem “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti — about a young woman who heals her sister after she gets sick eating goblin fruit — and Eastern European myths.

The novel switches off between the two sister’s perspectives. Liba’s narrative is told in prose, which matches her thoughtful nature, while Laya’s is told in poetry, which fits in with her flighty spirit. Hebrew, Yiddish and Ukrainian words weave throughout the novel, anchoring it into both Jewish history and a sense of fantasy.

Author Rena Rossner, a literary agent in Israel, says that this debut fantasy novel was inspired by her own family history. She wanted to do a retelling of “Goblin Market” and found the perfect setting in Dubossary, the shtetl where her ancestors lived before they fled to the United States.

Beyond being a fairy tale, this book is a coming-of-age novel, a story of sisterly affection and women’s empowerment and a testament to the Jewish people’s ability to endure generations of oppression — an endurance that perhaps can sometimes feel like magic.

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