Editor’s Note: The incomparable Rena Rossner brings to life a richly detailed story of Jewish identity and sisterhood in The Sisters of the Winter Wood. The fairy tale is both captivating and imaginative, wrapping around two sisters who have distinctly different personalities. Rossner weaves their lives in and out of one another and creates a story that is deeply connected to identity, faith, sisterhood and the magic of stories. Rena recently revealed to us the inspiration behind behind her latest novel.
The Goldene Medina – Of Fairy Tales and Dreams
When I first got the idea for The Sisters of the Winter Wood, I had no intention of writing a Jewish fantasy novel. In fact, I was trying to distance myself from that part of my identity. The previous books I’d worked on had been so Jewish that I started wondering if my work was too Jewish. So I decided to work on a fairy tale retelling of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” poem. I loved that it was a tale of sisterly love and that both sisters end up saving each other. I decided to set my book in a forest in France near an (invented) town called “Blest.” But when I finished a draft of the book and re-read it, everything felt wrong. I woke my husband up in the middle of the night and said: “my book doesn’t have a soul” – to which he responded: “Rena, go back to sleep.”
But I realized that I needed to set this re-telling somewhere that meant something to me. So I borrowed some of my parents’ genealogy binders – the results of hours of research by family members containing pages of testimony, family history and long lists of names. The interesting bits were the stories about the different towns researched—Bender, Riga, Kupel, and Dubossary – that my family came from before they made their way to America. I started to look for a town by a river with a forest or an orchard, a place with lush fruit trees. And that was when I found a poem written by a man from the town of Dubossary describing exactly what I was looking for. My heart started to race. I knew that I had found my novel’s heart, its location.
Which of course led me to wake my husband up in the middle of the night again and say: “I need to add Yiddish to my novel” – to which he responded, “Rena, go back to sleep.”
But I write at night, when my five children (and husband) are fast asleep, when my house is quiet, and the stars are out, and I can be alone with my thoughts. It was on one of these moonlit nights that I discovered that when a pogrom was supposed to come to the town of Dubossary, the Jews of the town fought back, and a pogrom never happened there. I knew then that my feisty heroines would end up not only saving each other – but saving their town.
So, in essence, in my attempt to write a book with no Jewish content whatsoever, I ended up writing a book more Jewish than any of the books I’d written before. Once I found the town, the language and the story of resistance, my novel suddenly had not just one soul, but many souls, a town full of Jews who had once lived there, and I was able to inhabit the shtetl that my family once came from and bring it to life.
I’ve been a reader and writer for as long as I can remember, but as a young girl I never saw myself in fiction – only in books like The All of a Kind Family series and in Chaim Potok’s book like The Chosen, but certainly not in any fantasy novels. I wanted to write a book that brought Orthodox Jewish teens to life in a way that gave them agency, in a way that had them become the heroines of their own fairy tales. In Yiddish, America was always called “The Goldene Medina” – for many, America was a fairy tale, a dream of a place where Jews could practice their religion freely. There seemed to be no better place to set a fantasy novel than Eastern Europe in 1903 – a time when America was a fairy tale, but one that soon became a reality for the many Jews, including all eight of my great-grandparents, who ended up fleeing Russia, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine for a better life on a different, distant shore. To make that kind of decision – to leave your family behind on a ship bound for a land that was only ever a dream – I think you need to have a little bit of whimsy and magic in you. I hope the heroines of my novel inspire countless others to find and embrace the bits of magic and resistance in their own family histories.
Rena Rossner lives in Israel, where she works as a literary agent. All eight of her great grandparents immigrated to America to escape the pogroms, from towns like Dubossary and Kupel. It is their story, together with her love of Jewish mythology and fantasy, which inspired her to write The Sisters of the Winter Wood. You can find her book at HPB.com and Half Price Books stores while supplies last. You can find Rena Rossner on Twitter and Facebook.