Set in the region of Dubossary, which lies between Ukraine and Moldova, The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner is a coming of age tale of two wildly different sisters of an Orthodox Jewish family in the early 20th century.
Liba, 18, is steadfast in her Jewish roots where family and tradition are the center of her world. Laya, 15, is less conservative, and spends most of her time out wandering in the woods.
One evening, Liba watches from the stairs as a stranger arrives at the door, beseeching her father to return to his Hassidic village, where his estranged father lay dying. After her parents (Tati and Mami) have an argument Liba witnesses her mother turn into a swan, and her father becomes a bear.
Liba speaks with her mother the next day, and learns of the legacy she and her sister carry. Tati comes from a family that can shift into bears, and she will as well. Mami is from a family that shifts into swans, and this is Laya’s future.
Shortly after this revelation the parents depart for the journey to Tati’s home village, leaving the girls alone in their isolated cabin in the woods. With the sudden departure of their parents, the girls find themselves alone in the woods for the first time. One trip to the market changes everything, and sends both sisters down different paths.
While at the market Laya falls in with a group of traveling fruit sellers. The group of brothers draw in the townsfolk by singing enticing songs, and selling exotic fruits.
Laya catches the eye of Fedir, the handsome brother, and despite his anti-semetic comments, she is intrigued enough to agree to sneak out to a nighttime gathering with the brothers. Quickly falling under the allure of escaping her rural life and seeing the world Laya develops a growing addiction to Fedir and the fruit.
Liba is suspicious of the outsiders and becomes increasingly alarmed by her sister’s behavior.
Liba, the bear, spends most of the book fretting over her sister’s behavior. When she isn’t fretting over her sister, she is in the beginning stages of a courtship with Dovid, the butcher’s son. She is torn between familial duty, what she wants for herself, and fear of the beast she is becoming.
The Sisters of the Winter Wood Review
Confession time- I am a folklore junkie.
If a fantasy story revolves around any folklore or mythology, I am on it.
Meddling Greek/ Roman/ Norse gods? Check. Mischievous fair folk? Check. Powerful jinn, Japanese yokai, Bruja magic? Check, check, and check.
So it would be no surprise that I read Sisters of the Winter Wood in one sitting.
Sisters of the Winter Wood is a tale filled with folklore from various cultures. A lot of this story is a re-telling of “the Goblin Market” a poem written by Christina Rossetti during the Victorian era.
There is also the Greek tale of Leda and the Swan, and people turning into bears is a common element in Russian folklore. In a story that is rooted in Eastern European Jewish culture, there is a heavy element of the fantastical.
What I liked
What really worked for me was the representation of Jewish culture, which I don’t see much of in fantasy literature.
The Judaism represented in this book is heavily conservative. So if you don’t know anything about Orthodox Jewish culture, consider this book a crash course. The Yiddish and Ukrainian languages are used frequently, but thankfully there is a glossary in the back.
The book is written in alternating points of view of Liba and Laya.
Liba’s chapters are in first person narrative. Laya’s chapters are written like poetry, and it was hard to get a real grasp of who she actually was. Her shorter chapters gave some insight into her thoughts (she really wants to fly away), but her character only becomes more fleshed out through Liba’s narrative.
For a story that relies so heavily on sisterly love, Liba seems to be the only sister that truly cares. Laya’s character development comes off as half baked. She just never truly develops beyond the “flighty sister” trope.
I liked the way that this book explored prejudice, and the belief that one’s views make them better than others. Liba tells Laya that she believes non-Jews are good people, but they are not “God’s chosen”. The fact that Fedir is not Jewish is initially her biggest problem with his relationship with her sister.
The fruit sellers on the other hand, spread seeds of resentment and fear of Jewish people among the townspeople. Prejudice exists in the Jewish community, as the sisters’ family is ostracized due to their mother not being born Jewish.
The family is shunned by the mother’s family as well because she married a bear instead of choosing a swan.
What I didn’t like
The ending of this book fell a little flat, and was more rushed than the rest of the plot.
Between the fruit sellers, the villagers, Dovid’s family, and the shifters there were just too many story lines to wrap up in a few chapters. About three quarters of the way into the book, Tati’s relatives show up.
While this explained some of the bear shifting, this part of the story was was not necessary. There were already too many things going on to pay attention to these new, and not really likable, characters.
Final thoughts on Sisters of the Winter Wood
The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a historical fantasy tale set in a time before the Russian pogroms and the holocaust.
The focus is how the sisters figure out who they are, and who they want to become. This is a quick read, and the conclusion is a little open-ended.
Still, despite some hiccups, I found this story to be a lovely blend of fairy tale and reality, and a tale of love in all of its forms.
Looking for more reviews?
Check out our review of The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller