Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review: The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

"1942.  It is several days before Passover," the badchan said.

"Before Passover?"  Hannah drew in a deep breath.  And then, all of a sudden, she knew.  She knew beyond any doubt where she was.  She was not Hannah Stern of New Rochelle, at least not anymore, though she still had Hannah's memories.  Those memories, at least, might serve as a warning.

"The men down there," she cried out desperately, "they're not wedding guests.  They're Nazis.  Nazis!  Do you understand?  They kill people.  They killed -- kill -- will kill Jews.  Hundreds of them.  Thousands of them.  Six million of them!  Don't ask me how I know, I just do.  We have to turn the wagons around.  We have to run!"  (from The Devil's Arithmetic, pages 63-64)

The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen is the most unique Holocaust novel I've ever read.  Published in 1988, the book focuses on 12-year-old Hannah Stern, a Jewish girl who lives a relatively normal life in New Rochelle, New York -- a girl who is tired of hearing the same stories at every Passover meal, tired of watching her grandfather raise his tattooed arm and shout at television documentaries about the Holocaust.  But during this particular Passover, Hannah will learn a very important lesson, one for which should could pay the ultimate price.

When Hannah opens the door as part of the Passover ritual to symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah, she opens the door to the past.  In fact, she travels back in time to a Polish village in 1942, where she is a young girl named Chaya living with her aunt and uncle.  On the way to her uncle's wedding, Chaya and a group of villagers are rounded up by the Nazis and told that they will be relocated.  Hannah realizes that she has been somehow transported to the past, and she remembers all that she'd been told about the Holocaust.  Despite her attempts to warn everyone, which just causes them to either look at her like she's crazy or panic or both, Hannah/Chaya and the others are taken to a concentration camp and put to work.

The Devil's Arithmetic is a beautifully written, heartbreaking novel for middle grade readers that emphasizes the importance of remembering.  It is obvious that Yolen performed extensive research to write about the inner workings of a concentration camp, and the book is packed with so many interesting details and compelling characters that despite the heavy content, it was difficult to put down.  Told from the point of view of Hannah, readers see the horrors of the camps from the eyes of a child and more importantly, the eyes of a child who knows the outcome of World War II and the fate of millions of Jews and lacks the power to change the course of history.

Hannah's story makes you wonder whether it would be worse to walk into one of the camps not knowing what horrors await you or fully knowing the reason why the smoke stacks are constantly spewing out ash.  Yolen raises these issues without being overly graphic, though many of the images could be shocking to some young readers, especially those not familiar with the Holocaust.  Nevertheless, I think The Devil's Arithmetic is an important book for children and adults alike, reminding us that we should not forget those who perished at the hands of evil nor those who survived against all odds.

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of The Devil's Arithmetic.

© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.


A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

I really need to revisit this book. I haven't read it since I was about 11, I believe. Thanks for your review.

Tasha said...

This title has caught my eye in the past, but I didn't know what the book was about until reading your post.

Alyce said...

I haven't seen this book before, but it sounds like something I would have really been into when I was younger. As far as whether or not it would be easier to know ahead of time what is happening, I think it would be harder in some ways. There is a certain amount of hope that can be derived just from not knowing what is going to happen next (or how long it's going to be until the war is over).

Violet said...

wow, I totally love the concept of this book. Never heard of this book before, thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Lenore Appelhans said...

I read this after I saw the movie with Kristen Dunst!

Michelle Fluttering Butterflies said...

Oh I adore this book! It was my absolute favourite in 6th grade. I wrote a long and detailed book report on it. I wonder if I still have my copy..

Serena said...

Sounds like a good book. I have some of Yolen's other work. I'll have to give her a try.

Sandy Nawrot said...

How have I not heard about this book? While reading your review, I got chills. That definitely is NOT the year you would want to time travel to experience. I could read WWII novels forever. I need to switch gears already and start reading those Vietnam books!

bermudaonion said...

That does sound like an important book to be shared. Did The Girl read it with you? I'm going to add this to my wish list.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

That's a good question: did The Girl read it with you? I'd love to hear her thoughts, as she's the same age as one of my kids -- who hasn't read any Holocaust lit (yet). That I know of.

To me, that's the hard part of this book. At what age do we start sharing the horror with our kids? And is it different for me, whose grandmother-in-law is a survivor?

Difficult questions. And yet... we've got to go there. We've got to teach our kids Never Again.

Andi said...

This is one I'd really like to read. I've always heard great things about it, and since it looks like I'll be teaching a lit class on Science Fiction in a couple of terms (and I'd like to include a time shift novel even though this one is heavily historical), this one might be just the ticket!

Blodeuedd said...

Sounds like a book that should be read, it's a movie too right? Have seen it around

Three Turtles and Their Pet Librarian said...

Loved loved loved this book! I bawled my little turtle eyes out at the ending with the numbers...I need to find the movie, does anyone have any comments on how it compared to the book?

- Fegan

Aarti said...

I don't remember this title, but the story you outline is very vivid in my memory. I MUST have read this and just don't remember it. Great review :-)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a very powerful book, especially for kids.

Dana said...

Oh man, this sounds like a vary powerful book and a very unique take on Holocaust literature. I definitely need to find this book and give it a read.

Stephanie said...

I found this book quite intense and disturbing, even though I read it as an adult. It was wonderful, though.

Kailana said...

I have never heard of this book by her before. I will have to add it to my wish list because it looks like something I would like.

Jeanne said...

This one is required reading at my kids' former elementary school.

Memory said...

I read this when I was eleven as part of a Holocaust unit at school. It's one of the few books that actually changed my life.

Anna said...

A Bookshelf Monstrosity: If you read it again, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it as an adult.

Charley: I had no idea what it was until a few people read it for the WWII challenge last year.

Alyce: Thanks for commenting. I wish this book had been published when I was born.

Violet: I hope you get a chance to read it.

Lenore: I haven't seen the movie, but I'd love to.

Clover: It would be neat if you could find it!

Serena: If you ever want to borrow my copy, let me know.

Sandy: I couldn't agree more. I plan to start the Vietnam challenge soon, but I still have so many WWII books I'd like to read.

bermudaonion: Unfortunately, The Girl wasn't able to read it, but I hope she'll pick it up on her own at some point.

Susan: It's a hard decision introducing this subject matter to kids. I think it all depends on their maturity level. But at some point they need to know so they can do their part to make the world a better place.

Andi: I had no idea it was a time travel novel when I picked it up. Yolen does a great job merging that aspect with the Holocaust.

Blodeuedd: I've heard it's a movie, but I haven't seen it.

3T: I have no idea, as I haven't seen the movie. It definitely was a sad, yet hopeful book.

Aarti: Thanks!

carolsnotebook: I couldn't agree more.

Dana: I hope you get a chance to read it.

Stephanie: Well said!

Kailana: It's the only Yolen book I've read, and I definitely hope to read more of her work in the future. I hope you get to this one at some point.

Jeanne: I think it should be! I don't remember reading anything as interesting for required reading when I was younger.

Memory: Now you've made me definitely want to persuade my daughter to read it!