Burning Girls by Veronica Schanoes

“I looked up at the flame-filled windows. There was no more jumping now. ‘I’m sorry, Mama,’ I whispered. I wept while the building flamed with girls burning, burning here in America.”

Veronica Schanoes’ novella is a bundled story mixed with religious mythos and folktale with a dash of immigrant journey. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Deborah lives with her family in the Polish town of Bialystock. As she and her sister Shayna grow up, they are each trained in different disciplines: Shayna, learning to sew from their mother and Deborah is sent to spend months with their grandmother, their bubbe, to learn an entirely different trade.

At first, the reader is led to believe that Deborah is learning the ways of midwifery. However, soon the reader learns that something much darker is happening. With the guidance of her bubbe, Deborah becomes a vanquisher of demons, the ancient lilit who comes for unholy purposes. The years go on and Deborah becomes much better at her job, but when Cossacks kill her grandmother, her family’s well-being becomes much more tenuous. The Jewish Quarter is under both the threat of the lilit and the very historical violence that comes with European antisemitism. She found her grandmother’s “village’s houses destroyed. Just cottages, built of mud and straw. Easy to kick apart. Easier to burn.” It is now up to Deborah to keep them all safe, including their newborn brother, who the lilit is intent on taking away.

The novella shifts from the past to a few years later when the two sisters settle in the immigrant NYC neighborhood of the Lower East Side. They find jobs as seamstress in a factory and everything seems shifted back to “the real,” but soon what haunted them back in the Old Country has found them in their new lives, where people work through the Sabbath and even eat ham sandwiches because they’re hungry.

Burning Girls blends the stories of the Old World with its talismans and amulets with that of the New World, which is filled with factories and progress and no time for gripping to the old beliefs. Deborah and Shayna hope that even with the loss of their entire family, the demons of old won’t reach them in America. These demons, of course, are taken both literally and figuratively. The lilit comes for every generation of Deborah and Shayna’s family. Schanoes takes a famous German fairy tale and spins something new without losing the essence of the original (I shall not tell you which märchen it is and spoil the novella!).

At times, I thought the backstory was a little rushed but that could probably be attributed to the narrator’s desire to get to the immediate action at hand. Although, I wish a little slowing down could have happened on the author’s part, because everything is so connected and I was happy to have highlighted earlier bits to remind myself.

The idea that, no matter where you are, the past will always be there is very present in Burning Girls. The young women escape their tormentors and lost home to come to the shining America we all like to imagine, but their notions of new and leaving the old behind are upended. Deborah is especially reaching to the past to survive in their new home in the Lower East Side (a place notoriously filled with slums and terrible working conditions). What I liked most about Burning Girls was Schanoes’ weave of fantasy and history. The deadly fire of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is a horrifying and poignant moment in the novella, and the terror of this tragedy has been included in the recursive nature of Deborah and Shayna’s lives. By doing so, Schanoes has created a new myth for this historical event.

At first, Burning Girls appears simple with its direct language and swift action, but what Veronica Schanoes has here is a work that is vivid, making the images and characters stand out in my imagination.

Fire–a motif that runs throughout–often denotes the end of one generation’s story through their destruction. The characters keep running, trying to survive the demons that are out to get them and no one is safe. Deborah can’t seem to outrun the fire that chases her, but she tries with the help of the ways of both the Old and New Country, her sister, and the confidantes she finds on her way.

Burning Girls has just been nominated for a Nebula Award – For Best Novella. The publisher has now made it available for free.

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post script

I love unique and striking book cover art. The artists who did the cover of Burning Girls are the Italian twins, Anna and Elena Balbusso. They have more fantastical illustrations on their website and Veronica Schanoes has revealed their new cover for her next published work, Among the Thorns, which is another re-imagining of a Grimm tale.

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