Jane Yolen – The Devil’s Arithmetic
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
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.
First Line: “I’m tired of remembering,” Hannah said to her mother as she climbed into the car.
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