Title: The Devil’s Arithmetic
Author: Jane Yolen
Publisher: Puffin Books
Publication Date: 1988
Genre(s): Historical fiction, Middle grade
“I’m tired of remembering,” Hannah said to her mother as she climbed into the car.
Book #2 of my Young Adult Lit class! Though I consider this to be more of a middle grade novel. We are beginning the Holocaust section of our course and I’m excited — can’t wait to be depressed!
Hannah grows tired of attending her family’s Passover Seder; she’s sick of listening to the adults reminisce about the past. What’s the point? World War II is over. But when Hannah opens the door to symbolically welcome the prophet Elijah, she is suddenly transported back to the year 1942. In this past world, she is known as Chaya and has an aunt and uncle she’s never seen before. As time goes on, she is moved to a Nazi concentration camp, and her memories of her life as Hannah slowly start to fade. Only Hannah — Chaya — knows the horrors that await the Jews, and she has no idea how to save them. She doesn’t even know who she is anymore.
When I was younger, I had Jewish step-siblings. To accommodate them, we started celebrating the Jewish holidays in addition to our own, and would say the Hamotzi prayer before meals. Our Seder celebration was not as traditional as the one in The Devil’s Arithmetic. I actually learned a great deal about Seder and the Holocaust from this novel. I thought the plot was very unique. Before reading, I was very weary that it would be a boring story, but I found myself intrigued and eager to read on. It’s not that it was an exciting story, or an unpredictable one, just that it was plain interesting. I liked that the book didn’t give a reason why Hannah traveled back in time. My friend wanted answers, but I think we already know them. It’s all about remembering. It’s a little ambiguous, yes, but I don’t mind.
The novel is told in third-person from Hannah’s perspective. Hannah was very endearing, especially as Chaya. In the beginning, it is easy to see that Hannah is twelve years old — she picks on her baby brother, she whines a lot, and she yearns to be one of the adults. As Chaya, it’s hard not to sympathize with her. I mean, I’d be pretty confused if I was suddenly transported to a different time period. She knows what happens to the Jews and tries to warn the others about the Nazis and the camps and the gas ovens; she tells the Rabbi that she is from the future, and of course he dismisses her like any sane person would. Through the whole novel, I just want to hug the poor girl. I loved Schmuel and Gitl, and a certain scene involving one of them almost made me cry. I knew it would be a sad book because it’s about the Holocaust, but still.
I really liked Yolen’s writing. Though the novel focused on a young girl, Yolen’s writing was mature yet easy to understand. Her descriptions were very vivid — I almost felt like I was watching a movie rather than reading a book. I think this is a great novel to introduce young readers to such a difficult topic as the Holocaust. It is a tough subject but easy literature, and having such a young girl as the main character is a great way to help young readers relate.
Favorite Quote(s): “…the game is to uncover the hidden order of the universe.”