Official book description:
In a remote village surrounded by vast forests on the border of Moldova and Ukraine, sisters Liba and Laya have been raised on the honeyed scent of their Mami’s babka and the low rumble of their Tati’s prayers. But when a troupe of mysterious men arrives, Laya falls under their spell – despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And this is not the only danger lurking in the woods.
As dark forces close in on their village, Liba and Laya discover a family secret passed down through generations. Faced with a magical heritage they never knew existed, the sisters realize the old fairy tales are true…and could save them all.
While the main story of this young adult fantasy novel with heavy fairytale elements is fictional, it’s based on true historical events and the towns and places referenced really did exist back in 1903. Rena Rossner’s extended family all came from the area and villages in question, and in the afterword, she explains that the ones that didn’t escape after the pogroms and persecutions started in 1903, the ones who were still there in 1942, didn’t survive the Nazi Holocaust. She wanted to write a book honouring her family and heritage, and also really wanted to do a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, because the story of the two sisters always appealed to her. As well as the influences from the Victorian poem about sisters tempted by seductive fruit sellers, Rossner also includes elements from Ukranian and Russian folklore with their bear-men and swan-maidens.
When Liba and Laya are left alone in their little cabin in the woods outside the village of Dubossary (which is now near the borders of Moldova and Ukraine) after their father and mother are called away, hearing that their father’s father, a legendary rabbi is on his death bed. While the young women are in their late teens, they have lived a sheltered life and are not used to independence. A Jewish couple from the village are supposed to be looking in on them occasionally, but they appear to have up and left town very suddenly, without leaving word.
Laya, the youngest of the two sisters, especially chafes at all of their parents’ restrictions, and is very easily tempted by the handsome fruitseller brothers, the Hovlins, who have just arrived in town. She seems like she cannot get enough of their luscious fruit or the company of one of the young men. She sneaks out every night to meet with him. Liba, on the other hand, feels herself getting the creeps every time she goes near the fruitsellers. Their obviously anti-Semitic views don’t endear them to her either. She tries to warn her sister away, but her words have little sway with her besotted younger sister.
Before their parents left them, they imparted long-held family secrets to the girls. Liba has the power to shift into a bear, like her father, and they come from a long line of Hasidic rabbis who gained the ability to shapeshift into bears in a time of great danger. Meanwhile, her mother, who converted into Judaism, is from an ancient family of swan-shifters. Her mother confesses that Laya has a different father from Liba, and that’s why she’s a swan-shifter. Apparently, at some point, their mother’s swan clan may come looking for Laya, and her parents task her with keeping her sister safe. Liba, unfortunately, notices her body trying to transform into a bear at any time she gets upset, and also struggles with her growing feelings for the butcher’s son, Dovid. While he is also Jewish, not an unbeliever like the wicked Hovlin boys, Liba isn’t optimistic that their father will find him a suitable husband for her, especially once the secrets about the bear-shifting are revealed. Who would want a woman who turns into a giant bear?
Full review on my blog.