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

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)


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

  1. Emilie says:

    I have found that slower-paced books are often a product of historical fiction in general because you have to do so much world-building. Unlike the setting details that go into a contemporary novel, which the reader is probably familiar with and has less patience for, readers of historicals want those details and as long as the story is progressing, I think we’re patient enough to soak up those details and let the story take its time.

    It’s been awhile since I’ve read a good Holocaust book, especially one for kids. I may need to check this one out!

  2. […] events as a backdrop: the Revolutionary War (Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson), the Holocaust (The Devil’s Advocate, by Jane Yolen), and War World II (Ten Cents a Dance, by Christine Fletcher) to name a few popular […]

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