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 régime. 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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.