Burning Girls and Other Stories: A Book Review

This October, I picked up recently released Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes.

Burning Girls and Other Stories is a collection of short stories that predominantly speak from a Jewish and feminist perspective interspersed with layers of queer identity, socialist ideals, and revolt. Earlier this month while perusing the new science fiction section of my library, this book caught my eye and I took it out on a whim; after reading the introduction, written by Jane Yolen, I became very excited with the prospect of this collection. Yolen praises Schanoes as a “seeress,” “an academic who writes fiction like the best of the modern fantasy writers,” “A Witch for Our Times.” I hadn’t realized these tales drew inspiration from fairy tales, and as the autumn season cozies up to us, I felt thematically this read would be quite fitting.

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes

The first story, “Among the Thorns,” delivers a fierce opening piece that revitalizes the anti-Semitic fairy tale “The Jew Among the Thorns.” In this, the narrator is a young Jewish daughter who vows to avenge her defamed father, who was targeted by a prejudiced piper’s mystic abilities, who forced the father to dance upon thorns until he died. Fueled by both love and hatred, the narrator is bolstered by the presence of a maggid, a powerful spirit, and hunts down her father’s killer. I thoroughly enjoyed this fresh take and after finishing this story, I had high expectations for the remainder of the collection, which ultimately resulted in disappointment.

The stories became increasingly mediocre. I hardly remember much of the contents, except a flash of nonsensical Alice in Wonderland allusions, overly ambitious lyrical prose that fell flat for me, and a series of characters influenced by punk rock fashion and substance abuse. Interestingly, the stories with historical settings were the most compelling, while the ones with more modern day settings skewed towards flat and uninspired.

While midway through the book, I was tempted to put it down for good, but it was stories such as “Swimming” and “Lily Glass” that delighted me just enough to hold on. Moreover, I was curious about the title story, “Burning Girls,” hoping it would be worth persevering for, as it was placed last in the collection.

“Phosphorus” was another tale I enjoyed, which chronicled the strife of an Irish woman working at a match factory whose jaw begins to deteriorate, having inhaled the phosphor for years. Yolen observes its inspiration from “The Little Matchgirl,” yet in Schanoes’ version, the factory women organize a strike and fight back against the oppressive director and foremen who have demanded such hazardous labor for menial compensation. Though towards the end, the timeline became a bit muddled, I found this story quite memorable.

Emma Goldman, image courtesy of Marxists.org
Emma Goldman, image courtesy of Marxists.org

The “Emma Goldman Takes Tea With Baba Yaga” story teased in the summary carried much potential, but the delivery was unsatisfying. One would think that Baba Yaga—-a fairy tale figure based off anti-Semitic stereotypes caricaturizing a large-nosed, green-tinted-flesh, baby-stealing mystical woman burrowed deep in nature—-meeting the infamous Emma Goldman—-Russian-born anarchist and political activist who immigrated to the United States for a period of time before being deported—-would be unforgettably legendary. Rather, the story was essentially a biographical write-up with a rushed encounter. The writing did little to lift the exchange.

Baba Yaga as depicted by Ivan Bilibin, 1900, courtesy of Wikipedia
Baba Yaga as depicted by Ivan Bilibin, 1900, image courtesy of Wikipedia

To be clear, I very much wanted this collection to be a replacement for those oft-cherished Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, or similarly passed-down traditions. Though underwhelmed by many of Schanoes’ stories, I was still rooting for her triumph as a storyteller.

Sometimes, Schanoes’ writing portrayed vivid and searing images, cutting sharp and sweetly, while other times, the characters felt more akin to paper puppets. In some areas, the writing was meta and it worked well, while other times the delivery felt a bit cheap and awkward.

Ultimately, this work is bookended by its strongest stories, while the middle section is hit-or-miss. Though, to be sure, Schanoes did not intend to create happy-go-lucky modern twists on fairy tales, many of the stories were straight up depressing to me, detailing toxic cycles, self-mutilating practices, and raging alcoholism.

Due to its varied and inconsistent nature, I have mostly lukewarm feelings towards Burning Girls and Other Stories. I can certainly see other readers enjoying it more than I did, and I’m inclined to give Schanoes credit for this ambitious collection, but the execution was not altogether enjoyable. At over 300 pages long, it may have behooved Schanoes to cut some of the weaker tales from the collection and allowed her strongest pieces to shine brighter in a slimmer and better honed anthology.

For more book reviews from Slanted Spines, check out this page.


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