Map­ping the Bones

  • Review
By – April 6, 2018

Jane Yolen’s new nov­el, Map­ping the Bones, is her third to ask young read­ers to strug­gle with the Holo­caust. It has been thir­ty years since The Devil’s Arith­metic pre­sent­ed con­tem­po­rary char­ac­ters enmeshed in a blend of his­to­ry and fan­ta­sy, as an entry point into this dark and chaot­ic time. In Bri­ar Rose (1993), Yolen used the famil­iar­i­ty of folk­lore to explore a past that seemed to defy real­i­ty. In Map­ping the Bones, she has con­struct­ed a far more ambi­tious and intri­cate struc­ture that alter­nates between fac­tu­al his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tion, dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters’ points of view, and heart­break­ing poet­ry. She demands more of the read­er, who is asked to con­sid­er ques­tions of moral respon­si­bil­i­ty out­side the well-known bound­aries of shock and anger, and of nev­er again.” Young adults are now accus­tomed to dystopi­an tales set in imag­i­nary uni­vers­es, as well as real­ist nov­els in which per­son­al rela­tion­ships can be intense­ly painful and destruc­tive, but Yolen seems aware of her chal­lenge. As the Holo­caust recedes into the past, how can an author con­vey its unique and unfath­omable nature to a new generation?

Set in the Łódź ghet­to, Map­ping the Bones tells the sto­ry of a lov­ing fam­i­ly cast into hell by the Nazi regime. Git­tel and Chaim Abro­mowitz are twins who com­mu­ni­cate through a secret lan­guage of signs, which Yolen allows us to visu­al­ize through pow­er­ful metaphors; their sign for sor­row is let­ting her weep­ing wil­low of a right hand bend down at the wrist.” Chaim has a stut­ter, which makes him a miser” with spo­ken words, but he express­es him­self elo­quent­ly through poems he writes in his jour­nal. These entries alter­nate as chap­ters with Gittel’s mem­o­ries of her past, and with a third-per­son nar­ra­tive of the unfold­ing events. The twins’ moth­er is a mod­el of nur­tur­ing strength, while their father, embit­tered and suf­fer­ing from phys­i­cal decline, pro­vides run­ning com­men­tary on the absur­di­ties of their degrad­ing cir­cum­stances. Read­ers may come to the nov­el with pre­con­cep­tions about Jew­ish life in East­ern Europe, assum­ing a mono­lith­ic form of Ortho­doxy that did not, in fact, exist. The Abro­mow­itzes are not strict­ly obser­vant, but nei­ther are they unfa­mil­iar with reli­gious prac­tice or belief. Git­tel, Chaim, and oth­ers in the ghet­to ques­tion the use of prayer and rit­u­al even as they some­times prac­tice them.

The action of the nov­el takes place in three dis­tinct set­tings, which, as Yolen explains in the after­word, cor­re­spond to three seg­ments of Hansel and Gre­tel. In the fairy tale, the chil­dren are forced to leave their home, wan­der in the woods, and final­ly face the threat of death in a witch’s oven. Sim­i­lar­ly, Chaim and Git­tel Abro­movitz are relo­cat­ed” to the ghet­to, fight with Pol­ish par­ti­sans in the for­est, and ulti­mate­ly encounter the witch” in the grotesque form of Dr. Men­gele. This orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple nev­er takes over the nov­el as a con­trol­ling metaphor. In fact, one of the most impres­sive fea­tures of Map­ping the Bones is its inte­gra­tion of his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture into the unrav­el­ing of Jew­ish life in Europe. While Yolen pro­vides brief back­ground mate­r­i­al and a map, she also includes many ref­er­ences that will almost cer­tain­ly be unfa­mil­iar to young read­ers. Git­tel and Chaim are always con­scious of lan­guage, and the nov­el refers to the works of Tol­stoy, Pushkin, Valéry, Poe, Rilke, and the Pol­ish nation­al poet Adam Mick­iewicz. The result is a demand­ing work that encour­ages fur­ther research and dis­cus­sion. Teach­ers and par­ents will cer­tain­ly want to pro­vide addi­tion­al sources about the Pol­ish par­ti­sans, still a sub­ject of con­tro­ver­sy. While many of these resisters pro­tect­ed Jews, oth­ers exclud­ed Jews from Pol­ish nation­al­ism and refused to arm them or to include them in their struggle.

Did the Jews of Europe go pas­sive­ly to their deaths, like sheep to the slaugh­ter”? Yolen answers this accu­sa­tion, but not with tales of human per­fec­tion and self­less hero­ism. She unflinch­ing­ly describes Jews who are self­ish, ter­ri­fied, and moral­ly com­pro­mised. There are ref­er­ences to the ghetto’s Jew­ish Coun­cil, whose lead­ers coop­er­at­ed with the Nazi com­mand in order to min­i­mize the num­ber of deaths, includ­ing their own. Mr. Abro­mowitz serves on the Coun­cil briefly, but is judged to be too out­spo­ken by those ghet­to res­i­dents who hope that com­pli­ance will save them. There are scathing por­traits of the community’s fic­tion­al servile rab­bi, and of King Chaim” Rumkows­ki, the actu­al Coun­cil chair­man. Yet even here, Yolen refus­es to pro­vide con­ve­nient tar­gets for blame, as her pro­tag­o­nists artic­u­late that they, too, might be will­ing to trans­gress moral stan­dards in order to sur­vive. The grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion of Git­tel from a qui­et and reflec­tive child to an avid fight­er is utter­ly con­vinc­ing. Ter­ror has a long tail; it’s called fear. Anger’s tail is longer, and it’s called revenge.”

Yolen’s new tale con­fronts dis­turb­ing ambi­gu­i­ties and avoids easy res­o­lu­tions. She shows respect for her audi­ence through the use of rich his­tor­i­cal allu­sions, moral reflec­tion, and nuanced lan­guage. Map­ping the Bones is an unfor­get­table, essen­tial encounter with the past.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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