Book Review: The Devil’s Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen

August 26, 2009

The Devil’s Arithmetic
Jane Yolen
Time Travel
Age 10+
176 pages

The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen

One girl's experiences in a concentration camp.

This is a great example of using time travel to teach a lesson. The main character is sent to the past to walk in her ancestors’ shoes.  This book also does something I haven’t seen much in children’s literature. It shows the horrors of the concentration camps. This isn’t about a character and her escape, it’s about her survival in a camp.

Twelve year old Hannah is sick of spending Passover ‘remembering’ the past with her relatives. During the Passover Seder, she is transported to 1942 Poland, where she becomes Chaya (her Hebrew name), the girl she was named for. She is soon sent to a concentration camp, where she experiences firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust.

There were many great aspects to this book. Hannah has a strong voice and she compels you to keep reading. Despite the horrible things happening to her, you want to go down the difficult path with her. The “meat” of the story (when Hannah arrives at the concentration camp) doesn’t really start until the second half, but this isn’t uncommon with time travel. You have to see what it is like for her in the present to understand and appreciate her journey to come.

I know slow starts are to be avoided, but I find fairly often in time travel you have to be patient–slow starts are common. Many times the story lies in the confusion the character experiences going back into the past, rather than the conflict that in other genres often happens in the first or second chapter.

There are two factors I always watch for in time travel – the “confusion factor” (how does the character react to time traveling) and the “language barrier” (how does the character understand a language not her own). I will do future posts on those topics. The confusion factor was handled fairly well. Hannah is believably confused, but catches on soon enough. The author (did what most authors do) made Hannah naturally understand Yiddish.

There was only one aspect that really threw me. Hannah goes back in time with all her “future” memories, but when she arrives at the concentration camp she suddenly has none of her memories.  She can’t remember anything about the present day.  I think the author was trying to show the gravity, devastation, hardships of the situation and how it affected Hannah, but her memory lost didn’t come across as being a result of such.  I understand that for the story to work, Hannah needed to lose her memory–and then remember it all–I just wish it had worked into the plot a little better, so it was more believable.

Overall I recommend this book to everyone. By using time travel as a plot device, the author was able to take a modern day girl (and therefore the reader) with no real concept of the horrors of the holocaust and make her live and understand it.

I leave you with this quote from the book which I think sums up the message of the book in a beautiful and unforgettable way.

Aunt Eve closed her eyes for a moment, as if thinking or remembering. Then she whispered back, ‘His name was Wolfe. Wolfe! And the irony of it was that he was as gentle as a lamb. He changed his name when we came to America. We all changed our names. To forget. Remembering was too painful. But to forget was impossible.’ (p. 163)


Type 1: “Walk in my shoes”

August 24, 2009

Mini Time Travel Series

Type 1: “Walk in my Shoes”

“Walk in my Shoes” is the defining trait of this type of time travel novel. In other words, experience what I’ve lived through. The use of time travel is for the sole purpose of teaching the protagonist a lesson.

This type of time travel has a very identifiable story structure. It begins in the present with a protagonist who doesn’t appreciate the importance of an historic event. The protagonist’s “I don’t care” attitude is what sets events in motion. For example, The Devil’s Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen, opens with the family celebrating the Passover Seder. Hannah is sick of remembering the past, and only grudgingly participates in the celebration.

Once the character’s attitude toward the event is established, he is sent back in time to learn its importance first hand. This is where the heart of the story begins. The protagonist is immersed into an unfamiliar historical setting, and his journey begins. Hannah’s journey starts when she symbolically opens the door to welcome the prophet Elijah and finds herself in a small Polish Village in 1942.

The rest of the novel is about the protagonist’s journey in “someone else’s shoes”. The protagonist must experience the events he previously didn’t appreciate or understand. Along the way, of course, his views alter. Then, only after the protagonist has learned a lesson, does he return to the present.

On a side note, a common trait in these novels are they almost always take place in more recent historical settings, usually the past 100-300 years. This is probably due to the fact that events that took place in the more distant past, say, during the Middle Ages or the Roman Empire, tend to have much less direct relevance to peoples’ lives today.

One last trait of this type time travel is it’s typically a character driven story as opposed to plot driven, which most time travel tend to be.

Winner of The Humming of Numbers

August 21, 2009

This month’s contest winner is Vera Smetzer! Congratulations! Please e-mail us at damselsinregress [at] gmail [dot] com with your mailing info so we can send you the autographed copy of The Humming of Numbers by Joni Sensel.

Stay tuned for next month’s author interview with Lynn Salsi.

Odd Scraps for the Economical

August 21, 2009

America Frugal Housewife

Straw carpets should be washed in salt and water, and wiped with a dry, coarse towel. They have a strong tendency to turn yellow; and the salt prevents it. Moisture makes them decay soon; therefore they should be kept thoroughly dry.

…presented to you from The American Frugal Housewife – Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy, by Mrs. Child…

Book Review – Ten Cents a Dance

August 17, 2009

Ten Cents a Dance
Christine Fletcher
Young Adult
349 pages

fletcherRuby Jacinski lives in a Chicago tenement called Back of the Yards in the fall of 1941. When she’s fifteen, her mother’s arthritis becomes so severe that Ruby must drop out of school to work full-time to support her mother and younger sister. Ruby takes a job at the packinghouse where her mother had worked and slaves away for a wage that will never be enough for all their overdue rent and grocery bills. When she meets Paulie Suelze, a local bad boy, everything changes. He gets Ruby a job as a taxi dancer at the Starlight Dance Academy, which isn’t an academy so much as a place for lonely men to pay ten cents to dance with pretty, gussied-up girls. Ruby loves dancing more than anything, but she soon learns that dancing at the Starlight is a far cry from her neighborhood drug store. Here every gift from a loyal customer comes with a price tag, and the price of becoming Paulie’s girl will cost the most of all.

Ten Cents a Dance was recommended to me by a fellow writer after she learned my work in progress is set during World War II. I was told it had a lot of historical details, but I was blown away by just how many. The evening gowns, the songs and dances, the racial stereotypes, the kitchen appliances, the insults and slang terms, the lack of familiarity with things we take for granted today like restaurants and personal vehicles—all of it threw me back in time and kept me there for all 349 pages of the book. Terms from the 1940s rolled off Ruby’s tongue as natural as you please, enough to make a fellow historical writer downright jealous. Jealous in a good way, though, in a make-me-keep-reading way. I refused to pick this book up when I had company for a long weekend, knowing I’d get lost in it and ignore my friends. I finished it two days after they left.

I have a hard time reading books that take place in the dredges of life, regardless of time period. I enjoy classic film noir and gangster movies, but to read about a teenage girl who gets herself mixed up with the unsavory characters Ruby meets is a bit too much, but by the time I got to those parts, I was hooked and had to know Ruby made it out okay. She does (not a spoiler, I promise!), but on her own terms. Those terms include making some tough decisions about a bad boy she thinks she loves, and for this I commend the author. I’ve read or watched so many stories lately about girls in love with bad boys but everything turns out all right because it’s “true love,” even though the boy never changes. Some of these guys are downright abusive, but that’s okay, because “he really loves me.” No one deserves that, and Ruby eventually comes to realize she doesn’t, either, though how she discovers this will make your heart pound and even give you a moment of laughter.

An odd coming-of-age story that is so true to its setting and its characters, Ten Cents a Dance is a rich, compelling read that will get your toes tapping.

Contest: The Humming of Numbers

August 14, 2009

This month’s contest is for an autographed copy of Joni Sensel’s  YA historical fantasy The Humming of Numbers.  The winner will be drawn at random from all correct answers to the following question.

What did Joni visit in 2004 that was part of her inspiration for writing The Humming of Numbers?

(Answer can be found at Joni’s website: Winner will be announced the week of August 16-22.

For an extra entry in this contest, post a thoughtful comment on that source of inspiration.  Good luck!

Interview with Joni Sensel

August 12, 2009

Please welcome Joni Sensel, author of The Humming of Numbers and other books for kids and young adults.

1. Hello, Joni. Welcome and thank you for taking the time to stop by Damsels in Regress to talk with us.  Your work before The Humming of Numbers included picture books and a contemporary middle-grade novel.  What drew you to writing a historical fantasy?

I’ve always been interested in medieval life and society, and I’ve never thought I fit very well in contemporary times. So I think my stories with medieval settings are basically an impulse to have the best of a simpler era, while fixing some of the drawbacks (like the treatment of women and the harshness of subsistence living). And that’s partly where the fantasy comes in!

2. What type of research did you do to write The Humming of Numbers? Were there any difficulties?

I had a foundation of information about the period and illumination from college classes, my own reading, and previous trips to the UK and Ireland. For targeted research, I read most everything I could get my hands on about early Christian Ireland, the early church there, and illumination, including some fiction set in the period; and I made some only modestly successful attempts to make contact with experts and academics on the topic. (The latter was my biggest difficulty; after knowing other writers who found great listservs or academics willing to share their info and even review drafts, I was disappointed by my inroads there.)

I’ll admit, though, that I wrote much of the first draft based on what I already knew before doing the bulk of my research. I don’t recommend that, but fortunately the revisions I had to make to correct misconceptions (including some bad information in early research) were relatively minor. And when the story is ready to be written, I’ve got to write it then, while it’s hot, or I’ll lose it. But I enjoyed the research and am still delighted to learn more about the era. One of my treasures is an old, out-of-print set of books that are considered the bible of Irish society and culture of the time — my one and only eBay purchase to date.

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