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Review: The Devil’s Arithmetic

Review: The Devil’s Arithmetic

Title: The Devil’s Arithmetic
Author: Jane Yolen
Published: 1988
Length: 170 pages

My star rating:  ★ ★ ★ ★

Giving this book a star rating and a review feels…strangely inappropriate. No piece of literature is above critique, of course, but after I finished this one, I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me a little. Though it wasn’t flawless, but deconstructing it for a full-fledged review didn’t feel like a constructive exercise. . There are undoubtedly small inaccuracies which older readers, in particular, might find frustrating, but the spirit of the book matters more to me given the themes and audience of the story.

No matter how many times you read or hear about the Holocaust, the full horror of it remains utterly debilitating.

I’m giving it four stars instead of five for a few reasons. As a literary work, it is on par with Between Shades of Gray, which I also gave four stars—this one is written for a slightly younger audience, though it’s no less emotionally riveting. I also feel it may be a little too intense for its intended audience (readers between twelve and fourteen or so). Jane Yolen does not pull punches. Everything short of dying women and children clawing at the walls of the gas chamber is in her. My library has it filed under “Older Teens” in the YA section.

The novel is, however, still relatively well-written from an adult perspective. Yolen keeps her prose simple and to-the-point. The parts in the book that take place in the present dragged a little, and modern Hannah’s voice annoyed me (on purpose, I’m sure). I’m not Jewish, but I have attended three or four Passover Seders—if I hadn’t, I’m sure the beginning would have totally confused me, but the dark twist on the “Dorothy goes to Oz” trope during the Seder was clever and well-done.

By keeping the cast of characters to a minimum, Yolen also maximizes each character’s importance to Hannah, to the reader, and to the story as a whole. Most of them aren’t fully fleshed out (the novel is more of a novella at just 170 pages), but they’re real enough to tug at the reader’s heartstrings. The Holocaust is often dealt with numerically—even by Hannah herself as she frantically tries to warn her skeptical friends that the Nazis will murder six million Jews. Yolen does a good job of scaling the immediate tragedy down to a handful of that number, thereby humanizing and individualizing the victims.

The camp narrative, which takes up about half of the novel, was just fictionalized enough—and given the staggering number of victims and Yolen’s own research, something like it very well could have happened even if this particular narrative is fictional. As I said, she doesn’t shy away from the fear and the trauma, though fortunately she keeps the graphic content (blood, waste, etc.) to a bare minimum. It’s no less horrific for being rather simple. Elie Wiesel’s very real memories in Night are recounted in a similar style.

Though the time-travel setup is a bit hokey, I did like the way Yolen handled Hannah’s fading memories and foreknowledge. It fit nicely with the theme of hope, however small, and the need to keep it alive from day to day in order to survive. Would it be better to know the full horror that awaited you—the truth about these “factories of death”—Yolen asks through Hannah, or to be ignorant?

My introduction to the Holocaust was the decidedly milder Number the Stars in elementary school, and my first serious contact with it came when I was fourteen during a visit to the Holocaust Museum in D.C.. I’m not sure there’s an age when a child is “ready” to be exposed to that sort of horror, but The Devil’s Arithmetic is not a book I would give to anyone under twelve or thirteen.

Effective, touching, haunting, and sometimes poetic, this short novel is worth a few hours of your time even if you fall outside its target audience.

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