The Assign­ment

  • Review
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. Hart­ley’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 régime 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.

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