What message does Jane Yolen send to her readers through Hannah's journey?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The message that Yolen sends to her readers through Hannah's journey is that we must never forget the sacrifices of those who came before us.

At the start of the novel, Hannah refuses to identify with anything beyond herself. She is incapable of recognizing struggle and her scope of empathy is very narrow. She essentially rejects her own heritage and fails to understand the importance of the Seder dinner. Hannah changes only through her journey. It changes her because it forces her to develop a wider scope of compassion for others. Her journey helps her to develop an empathetic approach that values her heritage. Such a change is seen in large and small actions. From offering her food to others even though she is hungry to the ultimate sacrifice when she says, “Run for your life, Rivka...for your future...run...and remember," the journey changes Hannah and, in the process, us.

The reader can never fully understand the pain and struggle of what happened in the past. However, it is clear Yolen believes that when voyages like Hannah's are communicated, the reader can grasp their transformational value. Such journeys lay the groundwork for our identity. This is certainly the case for Hannah. As result of her journey, she is able to tell her aunt what the numbers tattooed on her arm mean:

J is for Jew...and 1 because you were alone...8...had been in your family, though [only] 2 of them [were] alive...your brother was a Kommando, forced to tend the ovens, to handle the dead, so he thought he was a 0...you said that when things were over, you would be 2 again forever, J18202.

Hannah's understanding is only possible as a result of her journey. Yolen's message to her readers is that when we delve into our past, we develop a deeper appreciation for what those before us experienced. We understand their struggles and, as a result, our compassion and empathy increase. The journey is what enables us to be more than what we are and is essential to better understand the world and our place in it.

Read the study guide:
The Devil's Arithmetic

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