Devil in the details

The July 23rd issue of the New Yorker includes an article about the Holocaust in children's literature, and particularly the contributions of Jane Yolen in The Devil's Arithmetic (1988) and her new novel, Mapping the Bones. The article, by Ruth Franklin, makes reference to a contemporary critic of The Devil's Arithmetic, an  "editor at a children's book journal who asked why readers should waste time on Yolen’s fiction when true chronicles, like Anne Frank’s diary, were available. To resort to fantasy, he said, trivialized the Holocaust."

That "he" was me, who in an editorial for the October 1988 issue of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (where I was Associate Editor, working for Betsy Hearne) laid out my objections to Yolen's novel. They were indeed several, but the gloss as reported in the New Yorker is balderdash that Jane has dined out on for years. You want an unsourced quote? "He cost me the Newbery!" (NB: I do like Jane a lot and she and I made peace about this decades ago.)

In any event, below is the text of the editorial, kindly provided to me by Deborah Stevenson, current editor of BCCB. Judge for yourself. (And if the New Yorker is not referencing me, and there was another male editor of a children's book journal who railed about The Devil's Arithmetic in 1988, give him my number because I think we could be boyfriends.)


from the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1988:

Time-travel fantasy can be an honorable form of historical fiction, but how effective is it as an introduction to the Holocaust? In Jane Yolen's engrossing new fantasy, The Devil's Arithmetic, the thirteen-year-old heroine, Hannah, slips back in time when, as part of the Passover feast, she opens the door to welcome Elijah. The prophet isn't there; instead, Hannah finds herself looking out from a door into a pastoral landscape. The people in the unfamiliar house call her Chaya ("Life," and also the Hebrew for Hannah) and excuse her confusion with the explanation that her parents died of sickness, as Chaya nearly did herself, and so she has been sent to them--from Lublin--to recover. The date is revealed when Hannah and her new-found family, on their way to a wedding, encounter soldiers. Implausibly, no one else seems even aware that there is a war going on, but Hannah, after ascertaining the year (1942), understands. "The men down there, they're not wedding guests. They're Nazis. Nazis! Do you understand? They kill people. They killed-kill-will kill Jews. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Six million of them. I know." Along with other villagers, the wedding party is packed into a freight car and taken to a concentration camp.

Hannah's warnings seem crude. The victims certainly think so (and refuse to listen), and the reader feels bludgeoned as well. But captivated, too: Yolen has shaped the traditional suspense of the time fantasy--how will she get back?--with a sensational twist: will Hannah be murdered in the gas chambers? Yes, and no. Hannah survives in the camp (a fictionalized Auschwitz) for months, and the depiction of the horrors she sees is more graphic than any we've seen in Holocaust fiction for children before. She is forced into the showers and is relieved to find only water coming from the spouts. When her head is shaved, Hannah loses her memories of the future. Her arm is tattooed. She sees friends murdered, survives several "choosings," and watches helplessly as a little boy is taken "to be with his mother" by the Mengele figure, Dr. Brauer. She endures the slaps and barked commands ("Schnell!") of the three- fingered guard, the blokova. The sweet-faced sonderkommando who carries to the crematorium the bullet-ridden body of Chaya's friend Fayge "as one might carry a loved one, with conscious tenderness and pride" will survive, unbelievably, to become Hannah's grandfather, the one who raves at family gatherings about the number on his arm.

Jane Yolen has written a powerful, not easily forgotten, story, but is it a story about the Holocaust? The horror--and the history--are betrayed by the essentially comforting vision of the story and its time-travel form. There is a future, and those who are brave, and good, can live to see it. Near the end of The Devil's Arithmetic, three of Chaya's friends are chosen for extermination, to enter the place called "Lilith's Cave" by the prisoners. Tearing Rivka's kerchief from her head, Chaya places it on her own. Her memory has returned. Arm in arm with the other two (and how that choosing must have felt!) she walks into the gas chamber saying "Ready or not, here we come," a flip Americanism that serves as epitaph for Shifre and Esther, but as Dorothy's slippers for Hannah herself, who suddenly finds herself once again at the door of her grandparents' apartment. With her grandfather, the sonderkommando, and with beloved Aunt Eva, who, it turns out, was Rifka. The lesson of Yolen's book is that we have survived the Holocaust, we have lived the future. We have learned, as Yolen says in her afterword, that "swallows still sing around the smokestacks."

This optimistic, neatly rounded lesson fits comfortably into children's literature, a genre that, despite well- known exceptions, demands a hopeful conclusion. How much hope can be extracted from the Holocaust? The stories of survivors can be inspiring, but, as survivor Primo Levi writes in The Drowned and the Saved, those of the dead are the truer stories. And which is Hannah's? She is neither victim nor survivor, nor, despite Eva/Rifka's claims, is she a heroine; she was never really there.
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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