MAPPING THE BONES Jane Yolen Penguin Teen 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...