Fic­tion

The Assign­ment

By – August 31, 2020

When pop­u­lar high school teacher Mr. Bart­ley assigns a con­tro­ver­sial project ask­ing his stu­dents to debate the pros and cons of Hitler’s Final Solu­tion, with half the class defend­ing the Nazi point of view, the town erupts in con­fu­sion and shock. Seniors Logan and Cade can­not accept Mr. Bart­ley’s con­tention that the debate is a legit­i­mate edu­ca­tion­al expe­ri­ence despite his argu­ment that it is impor­tant to exam­ine all sides of an issue, any issue. The Holo­caust, they feel, is not debat­able; there sim­ply aren’t two jus­ti­fi­able points of view to dis­cuss when the mur­der­ous Nazi regime is the sub­ject at hand.

Col­lege accep­tances, aca­d­e­m­ic awards, and edu­ca­tion­al, fam­i­ly, and social pres­sures make Logan and Cade hes­i­tate to pub­licly protest this assign­ment, espe­cial­ly when they find out that the prin­ci­pal sup­ports the teacher, bring­ing his con­sid­er­able forces to bear in pres­sur­ing them to drop the issue. Once the teens have made their stand, how­ev­er, pre­vi­ous­ly unseen fis­sures in the com­mu­ni­ty begin to widen and anti­semitism grad­u­al­ly emerges. Nei­ther Logan nor Cade per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fy as Jews, but they have a fine­ly honed sense of what is right and what is wrong and they are absolute­ly sure that this assign­ment falls under the cat­e­go­ry of wrong. In spite of their pre­vi­ous­ly high regard for their teacher, they know this assign­ment is inap­pro­pri­ate and they must object; their con­sciences demand it.

Fam­i­ly ties, close friend­ships, social accep­tance, fear of per­son­al fall-out, and a deep respect for learn­ing peri­od­i­cal­ly shake their resolve, but they per­sist in protest­ing this appalling assign­ment. Sup­port­ive of one anoth­er, the teens dig deeply into their souls and find the courage to pro­ceed. Fam­i­ly secrets emerge under the pres­sure they face, mak­ing their fight feel even more sig­nif­i­cant and personal.

Based on an actu­al event, this grip­ping sto­ry will have a last­ing impact, reach­ing and, per­haps, chang­ing the read­er. The char­ac­ters and set­ting are vivid­ly drawn, a touch of romance adds some spice, and the unfold­ing events feel both real­is­tic and plau­si­ble. There is a pal­pa­ble sense of dis­com­fort run­ning through the nar­ra­tive, and it is clear that there are impor­tant lessons here yet the sto­ry is sus­pense­ful rather than preachy or didactic.

Rem­i­nis­cent of The Wave, this nov­el begs to be read and dis­cussed in a group, and would be a per­fect com­ple­ment to a class­room unit on his­to­ry, ethics, or social struc­ture. This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes an intro­duc­to­ry note by the author which dis­cuss­es the real life inci­dent on which the nov­el is based and gives impor­tant back­ground and context.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Liza Wiemer

  1. Con­sid­er your ini­tial reac­tion to the assign­ment. When you fin­ished read­ing the book, did you have a dif­fer­ent point of view?

  2. In your own life, is there a moment when you spoke up for your­self or for some­one else? If so, what hap­pened, how did oth­ers react, and how did that expe­ri­ence shape you?

  3. Why might it be dif­fi­cult for teens to speak up against an injus­tice? Is it dif­fer­ent for adults? Why or why not?

  4. This book was inspired by true events. Sim­i­lar assign­ments are giv­en fre­quent­ly in schools across the globe. Why do you think teach­ers give these assignments? 

  5. Logan goes to her father for advice on how to han­dle the assign­ment. But Cade grap­ples with telling his par­ents. Why were their sit­u­a­tions dif­fer­ent and what do you think you would have done if you had been a stu­dent in that class or if you had been a par­ent of one of the students?

  6. The chap­ters for the two main char­ac­ters, Cade and Logan, are writ­ten in first per­son. Sec­ondary char­ac­ters’ chap­ters are writ­ten in third per­son. The nov­el also has head­lines, arti­cles, com­ments, video chats, tweets, text mes­sages, and more. The chap­ters are also short. Why do you think the author struc­tured the book this way?

  7. Ear­ly on in the nov­el, Cade thinks about his grand­pa’s rev­e­la­tion about sav­ing a Jew­ish boy’s life dur­ing World War II. As more is revealed, what was your reac­tion to Nana and Grand­pa? How does their expe­ri­ence con­nect to soci­ety today?

  8. In what ways did the author con­nect World War II and the Holo­caust to anti­semitism and oth­er forms of hatred today? 

  9. What short-term and long-term impact do you think speak­ing out against an assign­ment might have on stu­dents, the teacher, the school, and the community?

  10. What was your reac­tion to the teacher, Mr. Bart­ley? Did it change while you were read­ing the nov­el? If so, how and why?

  11. In five years, where do you think Cade and Logan will be and what will they be doing with their lives?

  12. Could you relate to the author’s note? Share why or why not.