In surveying literature for children about the Shoah, Ruth Franklin holds up Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) and Briar Rose (1992) as some of the best books in the genre, and compares them with such far less successful attempts as John Boyne’s popular The Boy in Striped Pajamas (2006). Yolen has recently written a third such book, Mapping the Bones, which, unlike her previous two, does not begin with a child encountering grandparents who are survivors. Franklin writes:
Not only are [Yolen’s] Holocaust books extensively researched, and their departures from historical fact scrupulously noted, but her fantasy framing devices also reflect a kind of imaginative humility about the difficulty of “truly understanding”—something to which Boyne, [for instance], pays only lip service. A book that involves time travel, [as does The Devil’s Arithmetic], deliberately relinquishes the possibility of being taken as historical fact. . . .
In The Devil’s Arithmetic and Briar Rose, the primary emotional pull comes from the struggle of a character from a younger generation to come to grips with what happened to her grandparent. But, having dispensed with this framework, Mapping the Bones immerses us in [the young protagonists’] struggles directly. There’s no reason that Yolen should repeat herself, of course, and it makes sense that the troubles of survivors’ descendants don’t feel as pressing as they did 30 years ago. Most children today will never see a survivor’s tattooed arm. Those of us who did are likely trying to figure out how to approach the Holocaust with our own children, wanting them to recognize its significance in their family history without allowing that knowledge to burden or define them.
Still, to me, there’s something essential about the interactions among generations in the stories we tell about the Holocaust, and I don’t think that my view is merely the product of my own childhood. In Yolen’s first two Holocaust novels, a younger person literally bears witness to the stories of an older generation—either by experiencing them herself, as Hannah does, or by listening to the testimony of survivors. And the reader, by imagining herself in the place of the main character, can vicariously bear witness, too. If there’s a consolation in reading these books, that’s where it can be found. . . . We may emerge from these books without grasping the true horror of their stories. But at least we’ve learned how to listen to them.
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