Yolen tells her story ‘‘Suzy and Leah’’ through diary entries. Both protagonists, Suzy and Leah, write separately while they are alone. Their thoughts, therefore, are supposed to be very personal and unfiltered, since both girls assume no one will read them. This provides Yolen with a chance to get inside the girls’ heads to some of their deeper, honest thoughts. So rather than narrating a story, telling readers what is happening, Yolen narrates the girls’ reactions to what is happening, leaving readers to interpret what is really going on.
Another advantage of using the form of diary entries to tell this story is that Yolen provides the contrasting views of the girls. Readers hear two conflicting interpretations of what is happening. This offers a more fully disclosed narrative since readers hear both sides. By hearing the two distinct points of view, readers are left to ponder that the truth of the events probably lies somewhere in the middle.
One negative effect of hearing the story through the girls’ writing is the lack of descriptions. Readers know very little about what each girl (or any other character) looks like, details a more objective and distant narrator might have provided. Therefore, readers are also given only scant descriptions about the details of the setting. Also, the feeling of immediacy is missing. Readers are not privileged to be in the center of the events, confrontations, dialogue, or other moment-to-moment action of this story. Since everything is recorded in diaries, readers are left to figure out the story after everything has already taken place as the girls reflect on what has happened.
Since very little information about the setting is provided, it is ironic that setting plays an important role in this story. The fact, for example, that part of the story takes place in a refugee camp creates tensions, which helps to create interest. Having the camp as part of the setting also demonstrates the differences between the children who live outside of it and the refugees who live behind the fences. In spite of the significance of the refugee camp, readers know little about how the camp looks, feels, or smells. The buildings are decrepit, readers are told, and the outer grounds are encircled by a barbed wire fence. But those are the only details that are provided. As it turns out, these scant details are all that is necessary to set the environment in which Leah presently lives. All readers need to understand is that Leah’s freedom is limited, and the setting in which she lives is impoverished. Further details are unnecessary.
There is another portion of the setting that is never described, never visited, nor explained— the concentration camps in Germany. For many readers, the mere mention of concentration camps brings up images that do not have to be defined. Knowledge of concentration camps and all that happened there, even if the reader is only vaguely familiar with the Holocaust, is a part of history. So Yolen only has to provide allusions to Leah’s background, which include the mention of the concentration camps, and most readers are able to fill in the missing blanks. The same is true, for the most part, with the mention of Nazi Germany and the persecution of the Jews. Without providing a detailed narrative about what was going on in Germany during World War II, Yolen creates a setting in readers’ minds that is at least loosely recognized. For this story, what is more important than the vivid facts of the setting of the war and the hostilities encountered at the concentration camps are the emotions that come from the experience. The setting in this story, in other words, is less about the physical, concrete details and more about the mental and emotional constructs.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Jane Yolen, Published by Gale Group, 2001.