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Hampshire County writers take local, historic snapshots through poetry, children’s book

  • “Mapping the Bones”

  • “Do NOT Stop for Hitchhikers”



Wednesday, June 20, 2018

MAPPING THE BONES

By Jane Yolen
Philomel Books/Penguin Random House
janeyolen.com

In April, a survey by the the Jewish organization Claims Conference found a disturbing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among Americans, particularly younger ones: Most of those questioned were unaware of how many Jews were murdered by the Nazis, and others didn’t recognize the name Auschwitz, the Germans’ most infamous death camp.

Veteran poet and children’s writer Jane Yolen of Hatfield, though, is doing her part to make sure the Holocaust remains an important topic for conversation among young people. One of her newest books, “Mapping the Bones,” tells the story of two Polish Jews, 14-year-old twins Chaim and Gittel, whose love for one another is one of the few things they can count on as the Nazis begin their deadly campaign.

It’s the third time the prolific Yolen has taken a serious look at the Holocaust in a children’s book, following “The Devil’s Arithmetic” in 1988 and “Briar Rose” in 1993.

The twins have a special bond: Chaim rarely speaks, instead using poetry to express himself, and he and his sister use their own sign language to share their thoughts.

Gittel, the story’s primary narrator, says of her brother, “Even as a toddler, he was a miser with his words. That did not make me love him any less. Only more. We invented a twin language that our parents never parsed and we never revealed.”

The story opens in 1942 with the twins, along with their mother and father, crammed into a crowded apartment in the Lódz ghetto with another family. As the ghetto’s meager food supplies grow ever scarcer, and other Jews disappear during Nazi roundups, the two families make plans to escape.

Soon, though, the adults have all disappeared, and Chaim and Gittel must make their own way to join partisan forces in the forests; their odyssey will also bring them to a forced labor camp for making German weapons, and they’ll come under the control of a Nazi doctor — a stand-in for the notorious Josef Mengele of Auschwitz — who conducts gruesome experiments on twin children.

As one character tells the twins, “He’s using us for experiments. And you know what they do to experimental animals when they are done with them, yes?”

Yolen has used the old German folktale “Hansel and Gretel” as a loose structure for “Mapping the Bones,” and indeed the story takes on some aspects of that fairy tale, as Chaim and Gittel are forced to leave their home, wander in the woods, and then face potential death at the hands of a Nazi “witch,” or doctor.

The story also draws some comparisons to “Mischling,” the 2016 novel by Affinity Konar about twin sisters who become subjects for Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz.

In the end, “Mapping the Bones,” which Publisher’s Weekly calls an “expansive, eloquent novel,” is anchored by the twins’ fierce love of one another and their will to survive, as well as Yolen’s willingness to take a hard look at the moral questions Jews faced in that fight for survival.

DO NOT STOP FOR HITCHHIKERS

By Marianne Gambaro
Finishing Line Press
margampoetry.wordpress.com

On her website, Marianne Gambaro describes herself as a “recovering journalist and p.r. professional” who now writes “for the love of the word.” The Belchertown writer has done just that in her debut poetry collection, “Do NOT Stop for Hitchhikers,” which features 23 poems examining day-to-day life, loss and memory, and snapshots of the Pioneer Valley.

An example of the latter is “Open Mic at Luthier’s,” a portrait of the regular open performance night hosted at the Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton. As Gambaro writes, music is just one part of the scene.

“Guitar, harmonica and voice — the oldest of instruments — / blend in mesmerizing blues. The couple at the bar ignores / the musicians and each gropes / with one hand while texting with the other. The first, / lean in flannel shirt, workboots, her low-slung jeans revealing / a “tramp stamp.” The other / in clingy black dress and ballet slippers.”

Drawing on her experience in journalism and communications, Gambaro writes in a straightforward, narrative style, whether from her own perspective or that of a dog whose owner commits suicide in “Good Dog.”

She also celebrates the natural world in poems like “Yellowstone in Winter,” in which “An elk upon a windswept high plateau” and geysers that “blow and stutter in the snow” are “all a part of nature’s greater scheme.”