Veronica Schanoes

Burning Girls

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Burning Girls Summary

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Written in 2013 by American author and college professor, Veronica Schanoes, Burning Girls is a genre-bending novella that combines elements of historical fiction and dark fantasy. The story follows Deborah, a witch, and her younger sister, Shayna, a talented seamstress, who flee Jewish persecution in Poland, immigrating to New York City. As the sisters adapt to their new life, they discover that they are still pursued by demons from the Old World. In Burning Girls, Schanoes explores the multifaceted roles of women, incorporating themes of feminism and cultural identity. Burning Girls won the Shirley Jackson Award for the novella category in 2013 and was nominated for both the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.

Deborah, pretty Shayna, and their Mama and Papa live in Bialystok, Poland at the end of the nineteenth century. Deborah spends summers with her grandmother, “Bubbe” Hannah, learning to be a witch. Bubbe is the zegorin of her small village: a religious leader who leads the women in prayer at shul. She also looks after their health and well-being, using herbal medicines, blessings, and magic to help women during labor, to provide contraception and abortions, and to protect infants from demons, the lilim.

Deborah studies the Torah, the Talmud, and even the Kabbalah, becoming adept at her grandmother’s pious magic. What she struggles with are tact and compassion. Deborah has dark hair, eyes like icepicks, a quick temper, and a fierce pride in the arcane power she inherited. Named after a biblical Hebrew judge, Deborah is quick to criticize the women she and Bubbe help. Bubbe tells Deborah that with a heart like a steel gear, women will never trust or respect her. Deborah gradually learns to hold her tongue and show kindness.

One day, Bubbe and Deborah battle a lilit, a demon with long, wild hair and claws, that is trying to seize a newborn baby. Deborah and Bubbe save the mother and child, but Bubbe sends Deborah away while she talks to the lilit. Bubbe later suggests to Deborah’s mother that they should take the family away to America to avoid the increasingly dangerous rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Soon after, Cossacks attack and destroy Bubbe’s village: Bubbe is killed.

Deborah inherits Bubbe’s ivory box. She knows it is filled with prayers and blessed talismans, but when she opens it, she finds a length of deerskin wrapped around a silver-plated knife and a photograph of the family. It is a contract. Deborah realizes that Bubbe made a deal with the lilit: promising the demon her daughter’s next-born child for the family’s safe passage to America. Deborah’s new baby brother, Yeshua, is born three months later.

The family works hard to earn money to leave Poland. Deborah’s mother promises that “in America, they don’t let you burn.” Deborah uses her power to protect Yeshua from the lilit. When the lilit tries, and fails, to snatch the boy, Deborah knows she must destroy the contract. She uses the power of the evil eye to successfully burn the evil document, but the act makes her feverish for a long while.

When the Bialystok chief of police is found dead and the army claims he was murdered by Jews, the tension in the Jewish quarter of the city grows. Deborah and Shayna are visiting a friend when the Jewish community is violently attacked. The sisters survive, but the rest of their family is killed. Deborah and Shayna take the money they have saved and sail for America.

They settle in an apartment in New York City’s Lower East Side, initially working as seamstresses in a small shop. Deborah meets Ruthie, a freethinking socialist with bright blue eyes and, like Deborah, “no interest in the young men.” Working on the other side of Deborah is Rose, a single lady with four children. When Deborah helps one of Rose’s children recover from scarlet fever, word of her power spreads among the women of the community. Deborah stops working at the shop and returns to her practice of helping and healing. Ruthie gets work writing for a socialist paper and moves in with Deborah and Shayna.

Shayna spends less time with Deborah, and Deborah discovers that she is seeing the criminal Johnny Fein, a “dangerous man to know.” When confronted, Shayna accuses Deborah of being “unnatural” and always placing her last. Shayna eventually comes to Deborah for help. Johnny Fein has bet that she can sew one hundred shirtwaists a day for three days, an impossible task. Shayna tries but comes up short each night. She meets an old woman with long gray hair, claws, and a naked rat’s tail who completes the sewing: first for a ring, then for a locket, then for the promise of Shayna’s first-born baby. Deborah realizes this is the same lilit with whom Bubbe bargained.

Shayna meets Solomon, a steady, kindly young man, and the two get married. Shayna soon becomes pregnant and has a daughter named Yael. Deborah works all the magic she can to protect Yael, even calling her Alte, “the old one,” to confuse the lilit. But the demon comes to collect the child, and Deborah knows she cannot break this contract. Ruthie successfully bargains for more time, giving Deborah the opportunity to conjure the demon’s true name. Shayna confronts the demon using its name—RUMFEILSTILIZKAHAN—and the contract burns. Deborah’s magical efforts make her sick with scarlet fever. Shayna gets a new sewing job at a nice factory on the top floors of the Asch Building. She says getting the job was so easy it was like magic, “like an angel was watching over her.”

One day, Deborah feels well enough to go outside. Fire engines are rushing to the Asch building. Deborah sees girls, their dresses on fire, jumping and falling from the burning building. She knows that it was no angel that got Shayna the job there. She searches but cannot find her sister. Deborah weeps “while the building flamed with girls burning, burning here in America.”