Burning Girls – Veronica Schanoes, 2013. 3.5/5
Witches and fairy tales, pogroms and factory fires: dark folklore meets historical fiction this genre-bending novella.
The story begins in Bialystok, Poland, just before the turn of the twentieth century. Deborah is a pious witch, like her bubbe, Hannah. From early childhood, she studies the Torah, the Talmud, and even the Kabbalah to learn Bubbe’s magic. Bubbe uses her powers to help women in the village, assisting in childbirth, offering natural medicines for contraception and abortion, and making amulets and protecting infants from the demons—the lilim—who are out to snatch them.
Not pretty like her younger sister, the talented seamstress Shayna, Deborah vows instead to be powerful. At this time, anti-Semitism is on rise in Europe. When Bubbe is killed by Cossacks, Deborah learns she has made a pact with a lilit: offering Deborah’s mother’s next-born child in return for the family’s safe passage to America.
Deborah must confront the demon to save her new-born brother—but she can’t protect her family against the Russian army. Tragedy drives Deborah and Shayna to immigrate to America but they soon discover that their demons from the Old World have pursued them to the New.
Burning Girls is quick but deep. There’s a lot to unpack, from the fiery symbolism, to the purposeful (if slightly off-note) threading in of the Rumpelstiltskin story, to the story’s historical context—the Bialystok pogrom of 1906, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy of 1911. Schanoes shines in her depiction of female community and its unique networks of support. She explores the differing, but not unequal empowerments of women, from socialist writer to seamstress. The blending of religion and magic, the Old World with the New, is so nicely realized it seems natural and inevitable. Burning Girls is suffused with darkly beautiful imagery.
My greatest problem with Burning Girls is my dislike for Deborah. Schanoes didn’t do enough to convince me that Deborah actually cared about those she helped, and I found myself empathizing more with Shayna. The novella length makes for a fast read, but it also leaves me wanting just a bit more detail to round out the characters—maybe I would have appreciated Deborah more.
Burning Girls is available to read free online at Tor.com.