Module 6: Historical Fiction/SLIS 5420
Yolen, Jane. (1988). The Devil’s Arithmetic. New York: Penguin.
This stunning book takes Hannah, a modern girl in the United States, from her family’s Passover Seder to a concentration camp in Poland in the middle of World War II. Hannah is the typical American girl who wants to spend time with her friends at the mall, go to movies, and do modern things. She is bored with the idea of going to the family Passover Seder and would rather be with her best friend. When Hannah is given an honorary role in the Seder, she finds herself suddenly transported to another place and time where she is being called by a different name. Just as Hannah begins to acclimate to her new life in the village, the family and all of the guests attending a family wedding are told they are to be “relocated” by the Nazi soldiers posted in the village. They must travel in the infamous cattle cars of the Nazi trains that took people to the concentration camps, and they must learn to try to survive the horrifying conditions of the camp. Here she is called by her Hebrew name Chaya, and everyone thinks she is someone else. She begins to lose her memory of her modern life in the United States. She must focus on staying alive and helping others to do so, as well. What happens to Chaya, and what does Hannah learn from this horrible experience? Yolen’s masterful writing brings to life a story that will haunt you long after you put The Devil’s Arithmetic down.
“Further, we suggest that traveling into the past along with a fictionalized teen helps to connect young readers with their own pasts, bringing history alive in a particularly meaningful way. For example, in the 1980s, Jane Yolen reported her dismay at the reaction of junior high students to her explanations of the Holocaust. They were so disconnected from what they were hearing that they suggested she was making it up. This experience inspired her to write one of the finest time-travel novels available. In The Devil’s Arithmetic (Viking, 1988), Yolen takes a modern Jewish girl, Hannah, who has little understanding of or patience with her own heritage and transports her back to a shtetl on the Polish-German border in 1942. She confronts what she had considered meaningless historical events and comes away a different person. Not only does the Holocaust become real for her, but she also develops a deep sensitivity and love for her roots.”
Darigan, Daniel L. and Tunnell, Michael O. (2003, May 1). Two literature specialists examine the popular genre. School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com
As the review and the book itself suggests, many young readers feel a disconnect between their modern lives and the history of their families or of their society. The events of the Holocaust may sound horrible to them, but be completely unfathomable or unrelatable. The Devil’s Arithmetic is a great way for readers to experience on a personal level what this part of history really meant to the people who experienced it. This book would be a great book for a book club at the library to use with other books about the Holocaust or alone with study questions, discussion, and content mastery activities. It would also be ideal as an interdisciplinary resource for teaching reading and social studies and could be utilized during the WWII section of history class in tandem with an English assignment (essay, for example). Having the students read from their essays might spark discussion of their perceptions of the book and the historical time it portrays.
Winner of the National Jewish Book Award