Mapping the Bones
2018, 417 pp, $17.99
For decades, Jane Yolen has been one of the foremost Jewish young adult writers in the United States. Called both the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the 20th century, she is a master in the genres of fantasy and science fiction and has written more than 350 books, mostly for children and young adults. Her most famous book, the 1988 The Devil’s Arithmetic, blends time travel and Holocaust education when her 12-year-old protagonist is transported from 1980s New Rochelle to 1940s Poland. The young adult book garnered Yolen a National Jewish Book Award and has become a staple in middle schools for teaching the Holocaust. Thirty years later, Yolen returns to this subject in her latest novel, Mapping the Bones, which is intended for a young adult audience, but it is likely that adult readers will also be drawn into its bleak and suffocating world.
In both The Devil’s Arithmetic and Yolen’s 1992 Briar Rose (a Sleeping Beauty story cast against a Holocaust backdrop), magic propels the plots. Not so in Mapping the Bones, where she opts for a more realistic mode of storytelling. Although a work of fiction, Mapping the Bones has enough of a historical basis to make it read like a convincing survivor’s account, one that does the essential work of bearing witness to a tattered and bloody past. The events that unfold are described in an unadorned and even matter-of-fact way that neither sensationalizes nor trivializes them. Cruelty, terror, random kindness and the faint hope of redemption all have their place in this harrowing yet ultimately compassionate novel.
Set in Poland in 1942, the novel begins with a knock on the door. But for the Abromowitz family—Papa, Mama, Chaim and Gittel—this is no ordinary, everyday knock. Instead, when they open the door they find the local rabbi standing there. With him are the Norenbergs, a family of four about to crowd into the already-cramped apartment in the Lodz ghetto where the Abromowitzes have been forced to move. Chaim and Gittel—twins who share an uncommon kinship as well as a private language of hand signals—take an immediate dislike to the newcomers, especially the son Bruno, who ricochets between arrogance and petulance. When the already limited resources—food, space and privacy—are stretched to accommodate eight rather than four, tempers soon begin to fray and hostilities erupt.
Despite the many hardships, Gittel and Chaim draw comfort from their almost telepathic communication and from their loving and fiercely protective parents: Papa with his gentle manner and superlative carpenter’s skills, and resourceful Mama, who, with a bit of flour and “a very old egg,” can nonetheless manage to produce a meal of pancakes that she drizzles with “syrup”—cough drops that she’s boiled down. The hated Bruno and his sister Sophie also rely on their parents for support and comfort. But this cloak of parental protection is slowly and inexorably stripping away. First Dr. Norenberg disappears, most likely jailed or even worse. There is no one they can ask about him, and even if there were, no one would tell. Mrs. Norenberg, who, unlike her husband, is not Jewish, sinks into a realm of delusion that is eventually her undoing.
Papa and Mama step in as surrogate parents for the Norenberg children, and when Papa learns they are to be “relocated” yet again, he understands the ominous implications of those words and begins to plot a daring escape into the forest. It is during this escape that all four children become separated from their parents and make their way, first to a group of partisans hiding out in the forest, and later to the hell-on-earth of Sobanek, a fictional concentration camp where their small hands make them ideal workers in the munitions factory.
Into this grim, wholly believable story, Yolen deftly works in fable-like elements; her Afterword alludes to the tale of Hansel and Gretel, and she indeed manages to cast the twins as the hapless characters in that most sinister of fairy tales. She also punctuates the narrative with memories (from Gittel, told from a much later vantage point in her life) and poems (from Chaim, who is afflicted with a terrible stutter and therefore a “miser” of his words; only in his verse can he express himself freely). There are two kinds of night, says the adult Gittel in one of these non-linear recollections. One is a comfort, Mama’s arms around you till you fall asleep. Soft bird sounds through the open window. The smell of a light, midnight rain…The other kind of night is one filled with terror, the sound of a gunshot, a scream…The house stutters, mutters, fills your mind with fear. Similarly, lines from Chaim’s poems—First birch like marble statues / guard the small sleepers / Then the oak bends down to take them / swollen with night, into her arms—hint at how he will be able to take the dross of his experience and craft it into filaments of the purest gold.
It’s no easy feat to write about the atrocities of the Holocaust for a young audience, although numerous contemporary authors have made the attempt. A recent list of Holocaust-themed YA books by the Jewish Book Council listed no fewer than 54, most of them fiction. It’s a topic that continues to compel, and the notable success of such titles as The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, may have contributed to the popularity of the subject. Holocaust-themed YA books always raise the question of whether such topics as the Holocaust are suitable for a younger audience and concern about exposing teenagers to such difficult and disturbing material. But if we can remember literature’s cathartic value, its singular ability to let us experience so many emotions at a safe and tolerable distance, then the question answers itself. Not only should literature for teens deal with what’s dark and disturbing—it absolutely must.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of 28 books for children, most recently, The Bicycle Spy. She is the Fiction Editor of Lilith.