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Jane Yolen – The Devil’s Arithmetic

November 22, 2010

140. The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen (1988)

Read By: Barbara Rosenblat
Length: 4h 51min (176 pages)

Genre: Mid-grade Historical Fiction

Started: 04 November 2010
Finished: 06 November 2010

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? A recommendation from Jessica on my review of Jane Yolen’s Foiled.

Remembering’s no
good if your memories won’t
help save any lives.

Summary: Hannah is not looking forward to going to her family’s Passover seder. Every year it’s the same: her younger brother being annoying, food she doesn’t much like, not much fun, and her Grandfather Will getting riled up about “the camps.” But this year, the seder is very different, although not in a way that Hannah ever expected. When they get to the point of the Haggadah where Hannah goes to open the door for the prophet Ezekiel, what she finds is not the hallway of her grandparents’ apartment building, but instead a field outside a small house in a Polish shtetl… and when she turns around, her family is gone, replaced with the small house and a woman who insists on calling her Chaya. Hannah is not sure whether this is a dream or reality, but as she learns more about where – and more specifically, when – she is, she begins to realize that they are all in terrible danger, since it’s the year 1942, and they’re in Nazi-occupied Poland. But what’s the worse fate: not knowing about the atrocities committed at the concentration camps until it’s too late, or knowing, but being unable to do anything to change the future?

Review: This is another one of those books that, had it been handed to me when I was ten or twelve, I would have absolutely loved it. (Although I would have been completely lost during the scenes at the seder – I didn’t have any close Jewish friends when I was growing up, and the first seder I ever attended was only a few years ago.) However, as an adult, and particularly an adult who’s read a fair share of WWII / concentration-camp-centric books, it didn’t have quite the same impact. I’m probably pretty jaded, but there are enough WWII novels out there that a new one has to have a pretty unique take on the subject in order to really capture my interest. While the time-travel aspect of The Devil’s Arithmetic wasn’t something I’d seen done before, it was also not really played up enough to make it stand out – this book felt primarily pitched as a historical fiction novel, with the time travel as a plot device rather than the focus.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t well done. I thought Yolen did a very nice job of depicting life both in the shtetl and in the camp; of presenting the horrors of the camps in an age-appropriate way, but without sugar-coating the details; and of balancing the darkness of the history with little pieces of light and life and love. It’s a quick read, and one that I can definitely understand how it would stick with a person, and become a perennial favorite. Again, had my grade-school librarian handed me this at the same time as she handed me Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, I would have eaten it up… but at this point in my life, I just didn’t feel like it had enough to say that I hadn’t already heard. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Definitely recommended for the mid-grade readers in your life, particularly if they like historical fiction. For adults, it’s a quick read, so worth picking up if you’re interested in the time period.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: 5 Minutes for Books, A Fondness for Reading, Libri Touches, Maw Books Blog
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: “I’m tired of remembering,” Hannah said to her mother as she climbed into the car.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2010 12:33 am

    I did read this when I was eleven, and it changed my life. It was among the first WWII/Holocaust texts I ever read.

    • November 22, 2010 3:51 pm

      Memory – One of my first was Number the Stars, which still holds a special place in my heart, even if I haven’t re-read it in a long time. I bet if I was encountering that one for the first time as an adult, though, I’d have a similar reaction.

  2. November 22, 2010 9:38 am

    It’s nice to know that there are quality middle grade books about the Holocaust out there. Great review!

    • November 22, 2010 3:53 pm

      bermudaonion – Thanks! I thought Yolen did a really nice job of balancing the audience’s age with the brutality and nastiness of the history.

  3. November 22, 2010 12:57 pm

    It doesn’t sound like at this point I’d find much new in it either, but I still want to pick it up just because I usually enjoy Yolen so much.

    • November 22, 2010 3:54 pm

      Nymeth – This and Foiled are the only two of Yolen’s books that I’ve read, although I’ve got Briar Rose on the TBR pile. Which others would you recommend?

  4. November 22, 2010 7:14 pm

    I am just trying to remember when I read this. I think I was probably eleven or twelve, and I didn’t like it at all. I found it equal parts dull and upsetting, which sucks because normally I like Jane Yolen. But yeah, Number the Stars, though. That book rocked my world when I was a little kid. :)

    • November 26, 2010 11:16 am

      Jenny – Hmmm, okay, there goes my certainty that kid-me would have liked once since I loved the other. I haven’t re-read Number the Stars in ages, though… I wonder how it’d fare?

  5. November 22, 2010 7:40 pm

    Devil’s Arithmetic was one of many, many, many young adult Holocaust novels I read as a child. It’s probably been 20 years since I read it, and I can recall a lot of the details. wow, the memories that are welling up. . . .

    • November 26, 2010 11:21 am

      Redhead – I love when that happens! Who knew where you’d kept all of those memories all of this time!

  6. November 23, 2010 10:54 pm

    I think I did read this one when I was younger, but I can’t put my finger on it. But I know what you mean about WWII books – after you read a lot, they seem to blend a little bit.

    One I just finished that’s an adult historical fiction novel is Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. It was about the Vichy government in France and a round up of French Jews in 1942 – an event I’d never heard of before. It wasn’t the world’s greatest book, but one I read really quickly, enjoyed, and felt like said something about WWII I hadn’t heard before.

    • November 26, 2010 11:23 am

      Kim – That’s great to hear, since I’ve got Sarah’s Key on my TBR pile. I’ve read very few WWII novels set in France – Suite Francaise is the only one that’s coming to mind – so that’s still mostly unexplored territory for me, too.

  7. November 24, 2010 8:32 am

    I really enjoyed this book (though enjoy probably isn’t the right word for a Holocaust novel). I didn’t expect it to “wow” me as I knew it was a book for middle graders, but considering the target audience, I think Yolen did a great job showing the horrors of the camps without making it overwhelming for younger readers. I agree that this would have been a childhood favorite if I’d read it years ago. I hope it’s okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.

    • November 26, 2010 11:25 am

      Anna – Of course, link away!

      I think that’s why I don’t read so many mid-grade novels anymore… they don’t always work for me, but if I do like them, I feel cheated that I didn’t get to them when they were age appropriate.

  8. December 2, 2010 4:02 pm

    Yes, you absolutely must read Briar Rose! I can’t wait to hear what you think about it.

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