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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Chapter 1 Summary

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Hannah Stern, who is almost thirteen, has been celebrating Easter with her friend Rosemary. She is very unhappy when her mother comes to pick her up so she can go with the family to Grandpa Will and Grandma Belle’s house to observe Seder on the first night of Passover. Hannah knows that she and her little brother, Aaron, will be the only children in attendance, and she does not want to go. Her mother reminds her that the Jewish holiday, which is about remembering, is very important to Grandpa Will and Grandma Belle, who lost many family members to the Nazis during World War II. They will be expecting the whole family to be there, so Hannah has no choice but to go.

Grandpa Will and Grandma Belle live in the Bronx, which is not particularly far from the Sterns’ home in New Rochelle. Aaron will be asked to read the “Four Questions” as part of the traditional ceremony. During the car ride, he complains because he is afraid he will not be able to remember them. Hannah reminds Aaron that he will not have to remember the questions; he will just have to read them. Aaron is still worried that he will not be able to read them correctly. Hannah assures Aaron that he is a good reader and will not make any mistakes, but if he does she will be right there to help him. Hannah then pounces on her little brother, tickling him to make him laugh. Their father reprimands the children for making a ruckus, and Hannah and Aaron move into opposite corners of the back seat, “staring out their windows with expressions of injured innocence.”

Later, Aaron begs Hannah to tell him a story. Hannah is a great storyteller. Inspired by a movie she had seen on television the night before, she begins “a gruesome tale about the walking dead.” Aaron is fascinated by her words, and before long the family arrives at the apartment complex where the grandparents live.

Hannah and Aaron race into the building after their father parks the car, and Aaron gets to press the elevator button because he is the youngest. When the Sterns reach the apartment on the ninth floor, Hannah is greeted first by her aunt Rose, who tells her she is “a beautiful young lady.” Hannah goes into the bathroom to regard her brown hair and braces in the mirror, and she wonders how anyone could think she is beautiful. Hannah reflects that Aunt Rose has a tendency to exaggerate; Aunt Eva is her favorite. Hannah was even named after “some friend of Aunt Eva’s . . . some dead friend.”

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Chapter 2 Summary