The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner
Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.
But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.
Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…
The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.
I live in a place where snow falls for six months straight. While the temps can plummet as early as September, deep chill doesn’t really set in until December. Around here, we experience the kind of cold that can kill. It makes it easy to believe in the myths and legends born from the folklore of the far north. To think of winter as a living, breathing god who lumbers awake like Veles and drapes his icy cloak over the land.
As the snow starts to pile up outside, I find myself searching out books that bring fantastical winter legends to life. Naomi Novik and Katherine Arden are two authors I return to again and again. And now, Rena Rossner will be joining their ranks.
The Sisters of the Winter Wood reads like a Baltic fairy tale retelling. With hints of “Leda and the Swan” and “Danilo the Luckless”, Rossner crafted a story steeped in legend while also weaving real life events into the plot.
It’s definitely worth reading the Author’s Notes at the end of this one, because her own family history serves as part of the inspiration, which is both impressive as hell, and also so, so sad.
Set in a small village in the early 20th century, where Jews and Christians actually get along (at first), The Sisters of the Winter Wood shows how quickly that veneer of peace can evaporate when events are manipulated against a minority and antisemites sow fear and distrust.
Interwoven with this slow disintegration of community is an underlying plot revolving around two sisters, one a bear, the other a swan, as they’re forced to take care of themselves for the very first time, while also coming of age.
Love, jealousy, spite, fear, and the finding of oneself play heavily upon both girls. I actually liked that they made mistakes. That they were naive and at times even foolish. It made them seem real.
I did have a few scruples with this, which kept it from being a five-star read, but honestly, they’re not worth mentioning, because overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was fantastical and atmospheric, and everything I could hope for from my first read of 2020.
Happy New Year!