Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Devil's Arithmetic

The Devil's Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen, is an historical fiction novel about the Holocaust, geared toward younger readers.  Thirteen-year-old Hannah is on her way to celebrate Passover with her family, but she'd much rather stay with her friend Rosemary, eating Easter candy.  She feels like every year, the Seder is the same - they do the Seder ritual with dinner and the adults talk about the past, and how important it is to remember.  Hannah doesn't want to talk about things that happened so long ago, and she gets bored of her family's stories.  

When her Grandpa Will declares that she will be the one to open the front door for the prophet Elijah this year, Hannah feels silly, but she goes along with the tradition.  Upon opening the door, however, she doesn't see the apartment building's hallway and the doors to the neighbors' apartments - instead, she finds herself transported to another time and place.  She has, in fact, been transported to Poland of the 1940s, where she will come to experience for herself the horror of the stories she used to dismiss.

I've come to understand that The Devil's Arithmetic is often assigned reading in schools during units on World War II and the Holocaust, and I can certainly understand why.  When I learned about the Holocaust in elementary school, we read Number the Stars, but I'd never heard of Yolen's book until seeing it at the bookstore a few years ago.  I wish I'd heard of it sooner.

We follow Hannah, who appears to have become Chaya in the Polish village where she's found herself transported, as she is rounded up with the rest of the Jewish community and taken to a camp.  She realizes what is going on and tries to warn the others, but there doesn't seem to be much anyone can do; she wonders which is worse - knowing, or NOT knowing.  The camp where Hannah/Chaya is taken is actually fictional; Yolen did a lot of research and interviews were conducted, and the camp she created for this book takes elements from a number of camps which did exist.  I think this was a good move, as it helps to provide readers with a wide variety of real experiences through the eyes of a single character.  Not only this, but Yolen does a commendable job of presenting such a subject to younger readers, without simplifying the horror too much.  That is to say, she treats it with the sensitivity such a subject deserves with a young audience, but she does so without really sugar-coating anything or trying to "shield" readers from some of the more tragic moments.

Hannah, as a modern young teenager, is a character with whom many kids in today's world can relate.  She's not so interested in old family stories told by older relatives, but throughout her ordeal in the camp, she begins to truly appreciate not only the things her family members went through, but the importance of remembering:  remembering the loved ones who were not fortunate enough to survive the camps; remembering as a testament that yes, these horrors DID take place; remembering what human beings are capable of in the hopes that we are able to learn from this and not repeat such things in the future.  

The plot itself, as far as the teleportation, is reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, but as the story goes on, I kind of got the feeling that perhaps Hannah is actually Chaya's soul reincarnated.  That might be reading WAY too much into things, but that is how I felt toward the end.  

All in all, I found The Devil's Arithmetic to be a very emotional read, albeit relatively brief.  I also watched the film adaptation with Kirsten Dunst in the lead role, but found the movie to be a bit of a disappointment compared with the book, as a LOT of the more powerful elements in the story were left completely out.  I like both Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy, and Murphy especially was great, but the film as a whole left a lot to be desired - so if you really want to both read the book and watch the movie, as I did, maybe watch the movie first?  That way, you're left with how good the book is, instead of being let down by how departed from the book the film was.

I find myself re-reading and re-watching books and films on the Holocaust quite often, and I see this being one of my frequent re-reads in the future.  



Film Adaptations:

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