illustration of main character Hannah opening a door which leads to a barbed wire fence

The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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What kinds of stories did Hannah tell the girls in The Devil's Arithmetic?

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Hannah begins by telling the girls stories about her life in New Rochelle. The girls are amazed by the comparative luxuries and amenities of her house, and are shocked that she was able to go to school, as girls during their time are not. They are also astonished when Hannah tells them that children are not always excited about being able to go to school, but instead look forward to the weekend, when they can relax, and do fun things like go to the mall. The girls are scandalized that, in Hannah's other life, people go shopping on the Sabbath. Their response to Hannah's tales indicate that they live very sheltered lives, and know little about the way life is lived in other places, even in their own time period.

Hannah then tells the girls stories from movies she has seen and books she has read. The girls are mesmerized, like children everywhere and throughout time; storytelling is a universal language. Through their reactions, the girls reveal that they are like their counterparts in the present time; they cry when Hannah describes the dramatic ending of the movie Yentl, and again when Beth dies in the book Little Women. The girls also act like typical young pre-teens in their social interactions. Hannah, who is new and interesting and fun, is the focus of popularity, and the girls jostle one another in their efforts to walk by her side (Chapters 6 and 7).

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