Voicing the Ineffable: Holocaust as Adventure in Uri Orlev's Fiction

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In a distinguished literary career spanning decades, Uri Orlev, the sole Israeli winner to date of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, has blazed a new path in contending with difficult, even traumatic history for young readers. His novels do not shirk from the trauma of the Holocaust or tread gingerly over treacherous moral ground but rather address children with candor, respect, and admiration in relating stories about the genocide that resemble gripping tales from popular works of children's fiction. Though usually threatened by the dire peril faced by young Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, Orlev's juvenile characters are also typically inveterate readers who give voice to their unspeakable predicament by framing their experience in terms borrowed from literary tales of adventure, survival, and resourcefulness. Orlev's The Island on Bird Street, for instance, adapts themes of Robinson Crusoe to a boy living alone at the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto. The narrator of The Sandgame depicts himself as Tarzan. By portraying the ineffable as audacious, Orlev's young adult novels about the Holocaust turn hair-raising stories of grim historical tension into literary tales of unsettling adventure that forge a powerful connection with readers whose range of experience does not approach the extremes of genocide. As a child survivor-cum-author, Orlev assumes his readers share not his personal circumstances but his literary imagination. He appeals to readers' ability to imagine their world suddenly transformed into a conflict against wicked adversaries. And he takes for granted that generations of child readers will thrill, as he did, at classic tales of adventure. Drawing on Orlev's original Hebrew texts and international scholarship, this paper surveys Orlev's strategy in The Island on Bird Street, The Sandgame, and Run, Boy, Run using children's books to create continuity between children's literature and writing about the Holocaust — and between the child victim of the Holocaust and the reader of children's literature. While Orlev's work is about an unprecedented and unique event, reading and writing about it is not divorced from the literary activity that all curious children cherish: imagining the rich, generous, and sometimes terrifying world of the book as real. Orlev's characters make their case as children for whom the boundary between the ineffable silence of trauma and the dramatic world of reading became blurred, with crucial consequences.
Original languageAmerican English
StatePublished - 2019
Event24th Biennial Congress of the International Research Society for Children's Literature - International Research Society for Children's Literature, Stockholm, Sweden, Sweden
Duration: 15 Aug 201919 Aug 2019
http://www.irsclcongress2019.com (Website)


Conference24th Biennial Congress of the International Research Society for Children's Literature
CityStockholm, Sweden
Internet address


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