NR: Burning Girls

The novella Burning Girls is the first and as yet only thing I have read by Veronica Schanoes. I see from Amazon that it’s no longer showing as a stand-alone, but presumably is available in the collection Burning Girls and Other Stories.

Raised in Bialystok, Deborah is the favourite of her grandmother who teaches her all about potions and healing, magic spells and how to cast out demons, while younger sister Shayna learns sewing from their mother. After entering a contract with a demon, her grandmother learns alarming things about the future of Bialystok’s Jewish community. Deborah and Shayna escape to America where they find employment in a sewing factory, though Deborah leaves as soon as her talents become known to local people who need help with illness and unwanted pregnancy. But the new world has its own problems to be dealt with, including labour relations and the allure of a local gangster, while the demon follows them across the sea for a final confrontation.

At heart this is a Jewish variation on a well known fairy story (to say which would give too much away), but the grounding in both Jewish folklore and the pre-Holocaust world give the story depth and a painful relevance for modern audiences. Schanoes’ depiction of a young woman learning the wisdom and healing lore of her grandmother is beautifully pitched, while the rites of exorcism are every bit as enthralling as anything to be found in The Exorcist. The picture that emerges is of a world very different from our own, one where the supernatural is always only a thought away and one ignores it at one’s peril.

All this in turn ties into the story’s anti-Semitism theme, with Jews slaughtered simply for being Jews. Deborah and Shayna hope that everything will be different in America, but in their new home while race and religion might not matter so much they find themselves still on the bottom rung of the social ladder simply through the matter of being poor, victims of a different kind of prejudice. Deborah does her best to manage the family’s fortunes, but it seems that her efforts are always doomed to fail, that the only successes she will be allowed are temporary, with far worse to follow in terms of the outcome. Similarly Shayna is made a victim simply because of her gender, exploited by her employer and becoming the moll of misogynistic gangster Johnny Fein. When she does manage to find a good man to wed, the past comes back to ruin her happiness in the form of another run in with the demon.

And so to the story’s powerful final scene, with startling images that kindle our memories of 9/11. Schanoes allows us some ambiguity at least as far as Shayna’s ultimate fate is concerned, though we fear the worst with good reason, while Deborah’s feelings of hopelessness and despair do not bode well for her future. You strike deals with a demon at your own risk.

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