Briar Rose Themes
Becca Berlin undertakes a quest for Gemma's true hidden identity. She has little to go on at the time of Gemma's death, merely a box Gemma left that contains cryptic documents and other puzzling items. What Becca does have is her love for Gemma and the clues in the fairy tale as Gemma told it. According to Gemma, the bad fairy wears boots, the color black, and silver eagles. The spell is described as a great mist. The prince walks through thorns, with white birch trees on either side gleaming "like the souls of the new dead." After the prince's kiss, everyone sleeps on except Briar Rose, who eventually gives birth to a beautiful baby girl. "Sometimes living takes more courage than dying," Gemma comments. "I am Briar Rose."
Becca uncovers the truth and gains in understanding because she is loving and imaginative enough to follow clues derived from the fairy tale. Thus Yolen communicates concern lest the modern world discount the value of emotion and the truths to be found in folklore and fantasy. By extension, a broader theme emerges, that works of the creative imagination should be given due place beside science and technology as keystones to contemporary life. Also, Yolen conveys the theme that those who know and confront the past are prepared to create a better future. "The future is when people talk about the past," according to Gemma.
The nursing-home, funeral, and sibling- interaction scenes demonstrate the theme that family history and ethno-religious identity are vital. Becca develops a greater appreciation for her Jewish heritage because she persists in her quest. Her act of setting out alone for Poland raises another theme, feminism. Major women characters in the novel display the qualities of determination and independence. Early in life, Gemma endured a Nazi extermination attempt, rebuilt her life, and saved the child she carried, Becca's mother. Gemma's character underscores the value of Jewish history and identity, but she is also a strong, resilient woman.