Sunday, October 4, 2020

Sisters of the Winter Wood, by Rena Rossner (author), Ana Clements (narrator)

Hachette Audio, ISBN 9781549173349, September 2018

Liba and Laya are two Jewish girls living in a small town in Ukraine, in the early 20th century. They are starting to hear alarming stories about dangers to Jews out in the larger world, but they feel safe in their town, secure in the knowledge that both Jews and non-Jews are decent people in their town.

Then Liba discovers that her father, her beloved Tati, can transform into a bear, and her Mami into a swan. And, also, that she is likely going to be able to transform into a bear.

Unfortunately, that's on the same night that a stranger shows up at their cottage in the woods, with the news that Tati's father is dying, and that Tati, his heir, needs to return immediately. The parents take a couple of days to make a decision, but then they go, leaving the girls behind, and telling Liba to protect Laya.
Before leaving, their Mami has separately told each of the girls more about her swan heritage, Laya's likely ability to become a swan, and a more painful family secret. She pledges each of them to secrecy; she asks Liba, the elder and beginning to show her bear heritage, to protect Liba, and to ensure, if the swans arrive, that Laya is allowed to make her own choice about whether to go with them, or not.

With their parents gone for an unknown length of time, Liba struggles to protect her sister, in ways that Laya doesn't necessarily agree with, or agree that she has the right to. They're less than three years apart in age, and both of an age that, if their father weren't so protective, they might already r been married. A rather strange group of fruit sellers has moved into the town, or rather, into the woods right outside it, and one of these young men has charmed Laya. Liba is appalled; these men are not Jews, and in fact she hears them saying shockingly antisemitic things at the market, and encouraging nasty rumors. Their Tati would never approve such a match.

But in the meantime, Liba has become attracted to Dovid, the son of the local kosher butcher, who isn't kosher enough for Tati. Dovid is kind, generous, and his family is kind and supportive--to Liba, and to Laya to the extent that she will allow it.

And Liba and Laya both know that Tati would not approve that match, either.

Not to mention, Liba is increasingly partially transforming into a bear, and knows she will complete the transformation at some point. How can she keep this from Dovid? But if she doesn't, how can he love a beast? She keeps decidiing to end it, but she can't follow through.

Meanwhile, dark forces are closing in on the sisters, and on the town. The strange fruit sellers are only the first and most obvious of those threats, and news of pogroms are starting to reach the town, and heighten the tension between Jews and non-Jews.

When the growing danger forces each of the sisters to make choices based on partial information they don't completely understand, and communication and trust starts to break down between them, the town itself explodes in potentially deadly conflict.

I really loved this story. Strongly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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