Rena Rossner didn’t know she was writing a Jewish fantasy novel till the Yiddish sneaked up on her in the middle of the night.
She’d been working on a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market—a dreamy, languorous poem full of sensory detail (the goblins sell “plump unpeck’d cherries” and “pellucid grapes”) that turns on the power of sisterly love, but felt her story lacked an emotional core. “I read it over and realized my book didn’t have a soul. I remember waking my husband up in the middle of the night, and I said, ‘I need to put Yiddish into my book.’ ”
“So then I started to think about, Well, where do I want to set this, and what story do I want to tell?” Aided by relatives’ genealogy books, she began researching her own family history and learned her grandfather originated in Dubossary, a small town that then straddled the border between Moldova and the Ukraine. In 1903, the body of a young Christian boy was found there on a Jewish fruit orchard, drained of blood. This incited pogroms in the nearby town of Kishniev that injured or killed over 600 Jews. “When I read that, I said, Oxkay—this is my story.”
Set in an anxious, rumor-filled backdrop preceding those pogroms, The Sisters of the Winter Wood tells the story of vastly different sisters Laya and Liba. Laya is flighty and restless, eager to experience life outside their insular Jewish shtetl; plodding Liba relishes Jewish study with her father and hews closely to tradition. When their parents are forced to travel to a neighboring town, the sisters learn they can shift into animal forms: a swan and bear, respectively. Their animal identities are confounding and at first uncontrollable, as each girl attempts to comprehend their role within their community and relationship to one another.
Despite their innate differences, made clear by their alternating perspectives—Liba’s is written in prose, Laya’s in breathless poetry—the two clash but ultimately prove to be each other’s salvation. Sisterhood is a key theme that Rossner, who also works as a literary agent, felt was lacking in the fantasy market. Jewish stories were another. “Little fantasy-reading me would’ve given anything to see herself reflected in the pages of the novels I was consuming,” she says. She drew inspiration from Hasidic tales (along with Russian and Ukranian mythology), especially those that center on characters “who can do unusual things in a time of great need”—for instance, a story about the ‘Shpoler Zaydie,” in which a rabbi dances in a bear skin in order to save a fellow Jew.
The concept is vital to the heart of this book, in which both sisters must ultimately summon incredible strength to protect each other, and their town, from destructive forces. But it isn’t an exclusively Jewish concept; it speaks to the immense sacrifices individuals make for the sake for their families—a notion that arose from her research into the saga of her own ancestors’ immigration to the United States. “The question, ‘How did you come to America?’ can be a really fantastical one. People get on a boat alone, or walk through twenty countries to make their way to a new place and seek a better life for their family. It’s a superhuman thing.”
It also speaks to the ways families immortalize their histories into a kind of living, instructive mythological text. “I’m fascinated by how we tell and retell stories,” Rossner explains. “We tell stories because they help us understand our own humanity. They help us find ourselves, find our families, find our past.” And while this tale is moored in the author’s Jewish heritage, the impulse to locate our identity through an origin story is a universal one.
“I’d love for people to take from this book that they can be inspired by their own histories,” she explains. “There is so much interesting mythology out there, and so many different cultures that I want to see in [book] pages. This is the story I told, but I want to read those other stories, too.”
Miriam Grossman is an M.F.A. candidate at the University of Virginia.