CM . . . . Volume XV Number 9. . . .December 19, 2008
David A. Poulsen.
Toronto, ON: Key Porter, 2008.
230 pp., hardcover, $16.95.
Holocaust denial-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.
Review by Pam Klassen-Dueck.
But the last picture was the one I would remember, even though I'd seen it before. It was the picture of all the naked bodies in the ditch. But this time, the picture zoomed in … once, twice, three times … until there was just one body. He left that picture on the screen and turned to face us.
Jews died in the war, make no mistake about that. So did Catholics, Protestants, Germans, British, Americans, and Canadians. The war was a terrible thing. And if there was a holocaust that would have been a terrible thing too. And there is evidence that it did happen … just as there is evidence that it did not. I ask only that you think about this question very carefully: Did the Holocaust happen? Do not let yourself be caught up in the agenda of a people who seek compassion and pity and, when it is offered, conspire to use that outpouring of genuine human emotion by well-meaning people to further their goal of world domination.
Mr. R leaned toward us.
Think. Think and question and don't merely accept the popular version of history.
Andy 'Alamo' Crockett doesn't quite fit in anywhere. He has screwed things up with his hot (ex-) girlfriend, he has just blown a wrestling match to a Jewish student from another school, and he can't blend in even among The Six, Parkerville Comprehensive High School's group of misfits. The point of high school, in general, is lost on Alamo – that is, until he starts Mr. Retzlaff's Grade 10 Social Studies class. Parkerville's students love the funny, crisp, and demanding Mr. R. When the Social Studies class begins to study the Holocaust, Mr. R asks only that they think for
themselves … but is that really all he's asking?
The plot of Numbers seems to be based loosely on the story of Jim Keegstra, a former public school teacher in Alberta who was convicted in the 1980s of hate speech against Jews. In particular, he taught his Social Studies classes that the Holocaust was a fraud, and he frequently made anti–Semitic remarks to his students. Although the plot in Numbers steers its own fictional course – for example, Mr. R's wrath is directed to an elderly Jewish woman who saved his grandfather's life many years prior to the story's setting – the echoes of the Keegstra trial resonate throughout the pages. Unfortunately, the text contains no direct reference to these historical events which may have been illuminating for adolescent readers.
Poulsen did a good job with characterization, which was vital in order to explain how a Holocaust denier could come to hold such sway over his audience. I appreciated, in particular, how Poulsen traced Alamo's gradual move toward anti&nndash;semitism, which was based in a context of not fitting in with his peers, paired with his captivation by the charismatic teacher. This helps to illuminate how Alamo could come to believe that the act of burning down an old Jewish woman's home was the right thing to do, even though the self-justifications are, of course, horrifying. I did wish that
'Numbers,' the elderly woman who is the target of Mr. R's anti–semitic rage, had received a more in–depth exploration. With the exception of a brief mention in the book's prologue, she appears toward the end of the story and speaks only a few words. I would have loved to have read more
about her life, including the things she endured during the war.
I was curious about the addition of a few subplots that didn’t seem vital to the book, such as the story of the perpetually drunk uncle who lies dead in the Dodge pickup – in the middle of the night while Alamo and his father are taking the truck to the teen's Biscayne, which has a flat tire
– and so they have to try to figure out where to take the body, plus get the car back on the road. This story, as morbid as the scene sounds, does inject some humour into the book, though. As Alamo points out at the end of that particular chapter:
every time I thought about driving around
the countryside with a dead person in the pickup so we could change a tire, I had to work a little at not laughing right there in the middle of the funeral. Perhaps it contributes to Alamo's characterization as a loser since he becomes the butt of further jokes at school, a situation which contributes to the explanation of how he becomes attracted to Mr. R's ideas about history.
I appreciated the fact that the book offers no clear-cut answers to any of the issues it raises, except for a lingering valuable caution to always think for oneself. In this light, the book has a smart ending in which Alamo is asked to contribute his signature to a petition in support of Mr.
R. Instead, he subverts Mr. R's admonition to think independently by signing the paper with Numbers&apos' tattooed identification number.
Numbers isn't limited to any particular audience as it will be of general interest to most readers, but I'd recommend it, in particular, to young adult fans of historical fiction.
A middle years teacher, Pam Klassen-Dueck is presently a graduate student in the M.Ed. program at Brock University.
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