I looked around. It seemed like any other day to me. Grey. Up the street a man was banging his head against a stone wall. – Jerry Spinelli, Milkweed
Somehow over the past wee while I’ve stumbled across a number of books about World War II written expressly for children and young adults. They’ve all been readable and haven’t exactly stretched me but none of them really satisfied me as an adult reader either. Not until I came across Milkweed. It does what every good book should do. It piqued my interest from the very start and kept it right to the very last paragraph of the final chapter; I didn’t skim or skip a thing. It contained appealing characters most of whom were reasonably well fleshed out and believable, its story was plausible and well-paced (although the very ending was a bit quick for some readers’ tastes) and it was told in a style that did more than simply relate what happened to whom, when and how.
I have no idea how I came across this book. I suspect I ordered it from Amazon because I don’t remember buying it in a shop but I can’t imagine what possessed me to buy it in the first place. It’s been lying on my to-read shelf for probably a couple of years always getting passed over for newer books. I’m not even sure why I picked it up to read this time but I’m glad I did. I expect I imagined it was a book for adults when I ordered it – the minimal cover design (which I love) doesn’t look like the kind of thing they’d do for a YA novel but what do I know about the youth of today? I didn’t know that much of the youth of my own day.
YA is a grey area. What exactly is a Young Adult? The reading level on Amazon suggests this is a book for ages 9 – 12; Commonsense Media’s reviewers (78 of them) opt for an average age of 11 but looking at the individual reviews it was obvious that a few reviewers hadn’t paid attention when they were filling in the form because they said the book was suitable from age 2 and above which it patently is not; a number of reviewers set the bar much higher, one even suggesting that you shouldn’t read this book until you’re at least 17. Younger readers will be perfectly capable of reading this book, as young as 9 I have no doubt, but because of the subtlety of the writing I’m sure that a lot of the material will pass them by (and by subtlety I mean that the author doesn’t always have an adult or an older child step in and explain what’s really going on). It obviously depends on the child but I would personally leave this one until a kid is at least 13; it’s not as if we’re short of books to read or anything. I say 13 not simply because of the subject matter but because of a number of shocking images one of which, the picture of a cow set on fire by means of a flamethrower running through the Ghetto (in which most of the book is set) and then being fallen on by starving Jews as it collapses, will stay with me for a very long time. Spinelli doesn’t make a meal of describing it. He doesn’t have to. My imagination did the rest.
This is not so much a novel about life in Warsaw in the early 1940s as it is a novel about identity. Our narrator is . . . well, we never actually get to find out his name but he is an old man now living in America looking back on that time. I’m not spoiling the ending by telling you that he survives – the one thing we learn from the very short opening chapter – is that he is a born survivor even if he turns out not to be a very bright one:
I am running.
That’s the first thing I remember. Running. I carry something, my arm curled around it, hugging it to my chest. Bread, of course. Someone is chasing me. “Stop! Thief!” I run. People. Shoulders. Shoes. “Stop! Thief!”
Sometimes it is a dream. Sometimes it is a memory in the middle of the day as I stir iced tea or wait for soup to heat. I never see who is chasing and calling me. I never stop long enough to eat the bread. When I awaken from my dream or memory, my legs are tingling.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “Soon it won’t be ladies chasing you. It will be Jackboots.”
“Jackboots?” I said.
I wondered who the Jackboots were. Were unfooted boots running along the streets?
[There were] thumping sounds in the distance. “What is that?” I asked him.
“Jackboot artillery,” he said.
“Big guns. Boom boom. They’re shelling the city.” He stared at me. “Who are you?”
I didn’t understand the question.
“I’m Uri,” he said. “What’s your name?”
I gave my name. “Stopthief.”
Uri takes the boy under his wing, introduces him to his gang of thieves: Ferdi, Kuba, Enos, Big Henrik and Olek. They live in an abandoned barbershop. No Fagin though. Or any adult. The boys are all urchins like him but he is by far the smallest and the stupidest. Which means he has to endure some gentle teasing on his arrival:
“So, Stopthief, are you a smelly cuckoo?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“He’s stupid,” said the unlaughing boy. “He’ll get us in trouble.”
“He’s quick,” said Uri. “And he’s little.”
“He’s a runt.”
“Runt is good,” said Uri.
“Are you a Jew?” said the boy in my face.
“I don’t know,” I said.
He kicked my foot. “How can you not know? You’re a Jew or you’re not a Jew.”
“I told you, he’s stupid,” says the unlaugher.
“He’s young,” said Uri. “He’s just a little kid.”
“How old are you?” said the smoke blower.
“I don’t know,” I said.
The smoke blower threw up his hands. “Don’t you know anything?”
The bottom line is that the boy really does know nothing. When someone asks him if he’s a Gypsy he’s not sure but the word sounds familiar and so it’s decided that he must be a Gypsy. So for a while the boys refer to him alternately as “cuckoo”, “stupid” or “Gypsy” until Uri decides that the boy needs a past and concocts a whole backstory to go with his new name, “Misha Pilsudski” including seven brother and five sisters. This becomes his new identity:
I loved my story. No sooner did I hear the words than I became my story. I loved myself. For days afterwards. I did little else but stare into the barbershop mirror, fascinated by the face staring back.
For a while things are good for the kids. There is plenty of food to steal and not just the basics, luxuries like chocolate. Misha is especially fond of hazelnut buttercreams. Shortly after he joins the gang the Germans take Warsaw. Misha is oblivious to the impending danger and thinks it’s a parade:
I gasped aloud: “Jackboots.”
They were magnificent. There were men attached to them, but it was as if the boots were wearing the men. They did not walk like ordinary footwear, the boots. When one stood at tall, stiff attention, the other swung out till it was so high I could have walked under it; only then did it return to earth and the other take off. A thousand of them swinging up as one, falling like the footstep of a single, thousand-footed giant.
The tanks follow. Someone throws a flower from the crowd and, lacking any flowers about his person, Misha throws the cheese he has just stolen.
Although reviews of this book on the likes of Goodreads and Amazon are all in the 4’s and 5’s it is only fair to say that the book has also garnered some criticism and much of that is directed at Spinelli’s young protagonist suggesting that no one could be as innocent and naïve as he portrays him. In defence this is what Goodread’s reviewer Wendy Pitney had to say:
There are a lot of reviews about this and the book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas that say that it is unbelievable that there were children that did not know what was going on around them. I really disagree with these statements. I have taught 5th graders and 6th graders that had no idea that we are at war with Iraq. So I do not, personally, find it hard to believe that this innocence or lack of knowledge occurred even during the WWII Era with the Jews.
Strangely I found myself more tolerant than I would have expected. I don’t suffer fools gladly but the boy’s stupidity is an integral part of who he is and he recognises looking back that his stupidity emboldened him, allowed him to take risks that more thoughtful people would not have done. Misha doesn’t think, he acts. And the laws of probability dictate that sometimes those actions will work out to his advantage and other times very much to his disadvantage:
Back on the street, I heard a shout. I turned. Someone stood up the street, in shadow. He stepped into the light. I heard a pop, saw a flash, felt a tug on my ear. I reached up. I couldn’t feel my earlobe. Someone was shooting at me! I ducked into the nearest air shaft and made my way home along the alleyways.
My ear hurt. I cried. Uri came to me. When I told him what had happened, he flicked his cigarette lighter to see. He smacked me and stuffed a rag against my ear. “Stupid…stupid…”
In his travels looking for food one day Misha ends up in a garden where there are tomatoes. There he meets and befriends a little Jewish girl called Janina who invites him to her birthday party the next day; she’s turning seven. It’s Janina on comparing their respective heights that decides Misha is actually eight but we never know for sure because even as an adult his height never exceeds five foot one. The birthday party does not go so well. Needless to say this is his first, the first he can remember in any case, and so when he sees them lighting the candles he panics:
I was shocked. They were going to burn down the cake! There wasn’t a moment to spare. I blew out the fires, grabbed the cake, and ran from the house.
The next day, after Uri explains the error of his ways (and help him eat the cake) Misha returns with the best cake he could steal, sets it on the back step, lights the candles, knock the door and runs off.
Uri’s gang are not all bad. They are all orphans and as such have something of a soft spot for other orphans. One of the things Uri does periodically is take food to Doctor Korczak’s orphanage. Misha does the same. He also includes Janina’s family – who he knows to be Jews – and begins leaving gifts of food on the back step for them. As a token of thanks Janina begins leaving the odd sweet or trinket for him in return.
Things are getting worse and even Misha can’t stay ignorant forever even though he hangs onto his innocence for as long as possible and longer than imaginable frankly.
The Warsaw Ghetto was established by the German Governor-General Hans Frank on October 16, 1940. Frank ordered Jews in Warsaw and its suburbs rounded up and herded into the Ghetto. At this time, the population in the Ghetto was estimated to be 400,000 people, about 30% of the population of Warsaw; however, the size of the Ghetto was about 2.4% of the size of Warsaw. … The Nazis then closed the Warsaw Ghetto from the outside world on November 16, 1940, by building a wall, topped with barbed wire, and deploying armed guards. – Wikipedia
The bulk of the book takes place within the Ghetto itself where Misha’s unique talents come in very useful. Because of his size he finds he can squeeze through a hole in the wall and along with the rest of the boys – who have to either scale the wall or use the sewers – he becomes part of a band of smugglers. He locates Janina and her family, her parents and her Uncle Shepsel, and eventually gets absorbed into the family. He even starts telling people that Janina is his sister and soon he’s taken on their family name too: he becomes Misha Milgrom. He even “becomes” Jewish. Uncle Shepsel, however, decides that Jewish is not so good and decides to become a Lutheran. He is the only one to ask the boy the obvious question:
He looked hard into my face and did not seem to know me. “You go. Every night you go,” he said. “Why do you come back?” I did not have an answer. Maybe he found it in my face, for after a while he turned and walked off. Up the street the man was on the ground.
The man on the ground by the way is the man in the opening quote.
There are 45 chapters in this book over 270 pages. At the end of chapter 39 the time has come for the Ghettos to be emptied. Most believe the stories or relocation even when a man who has escaped from a concentration camp risks everything to return and tell them the truth. We learn how Misha escapes being taken away on the train, how he survives the next three years and how he ends up in America and with a new name:
The immigration officer said, “What is your name?”
“Misha Milgrom,” I said. “What’s a Misha?” he said. “Your name is Jack.”
I became Jack Milgrom.
But we don’t learn the fate of most of the others.
His tale is not done though. And this is where I was most impressed with Spinelli’s handling of this story despite the fact he does so in only a couple of chapters: we get to see the real effect on this man’s life. You can argue all day long about whether enough time is devoted to this part of his life but I personally was satisfied. And it does have a happy ending – of sorts. And he has one more name to acquire but I’m not going to tell you what that is or who it is that finally locates him stacking shelves in aisle 4 of the Bag ’n Go market but it was enough. Yes, it’s true that we don’t find out what happens to everyone. There are numerous unanswered questions and probably the most important one is: Does Uri actually become a Nazi in the end or is he just pretending to be one, doing what he has to do to survive? It’s hard to know what to leave out and all credit to Spinelli for not trying to dot ever i and cross every t. But I was pleased that he didn’t just end the book when the war ended. His reason:
Q: Why did you decide to show the reader what happens to Misha when he grows up rather than ending Milkweed with him still a child?
A: Because I wasn’t telling the story of the war; I was telling the story of Misha.
Not everyone is going to be moved by this book. In fact this is what one thirteen-year-old reviewer on the Commonsense media site (username: Event Horizon) had to say about it:
Showing kids even younger that the Holocaust stinks
Whee...a kid doesn't know who he is. Whee...he steals without consequence. Whee...he makes friends with some Jewish family. Whee...he goes to a tiny slum with 3 zillion people. Whee...life is miserable. Whee...his friends die. Whee...more stealing without consequence. Whee...everyone is dying. Whee...I really don't care. I guess I could cry, but I didn't care whether Misha lived. He's just a person on paper. In Where the Red Fern Grows I even cared when the unlikable character died. In this one, everyone dies. But whee...I was miserable.
I’m going to refrain from passing comment.
But why call the book Milkweed? Seems like an odd choice. Spinelli explains in interview:
TeacherVision: The milkweed plant seems to represent physical and spiritual survival in your book. It travels freely and sprouts almost anywhere. Janina calls milkweed "her angel" – her inner spirit that can fly away. Did you call your book Milkweed in order to inject a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak story?
Jerry Spinelli: In a word, yes – though as I've noted, there are many rays of hope in the story.
He also explains why he chose to write the book in the first place:
TeacherVision: The Holocaust happened many years ago and has been written about endlessly. Why do you feel it is important to continue writing about it?
Jerry Spinelli: Because there is no statute of limitations on humanity. Because history sits on the shoulder while story unlocks the heart. Because to those involved, there was not a Holocaust of six million, but six million Holocausts of one.
The book has won numerous awards and rightly so. It wisely doesn’t try to do everything. The author was well aware when he wrote this that there is an awful lot of existing material on the subject so he chose to write something that would complement what is already available. It’s now frequently used as a teaching aid in schools.
You can read the first three chapters here.
Jerry Spinelli was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1941. He grew up playing a wide variety of sports, including soccer and baseball. For years Jerry dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player. Yet during high school, two things persuaded him to trade in his bat for a pen: he wrote a poem that was published in the local newspaper; and, he eventually realized that he couldn't hit a curveball.
At Gettysburg College, Jerry Spinelli began to write short stories. He also served as the editor of the college literary magazine. After graduation, Spinelli took a job as a writer and editor for a department store magazine. For the next two decades he did rather mundane editorial work as a day job so that he could have the energy to write fiction in his spare time. For years Spinelli wrote during lunch breaks, on weekends, and after dinner.
Spinelli's first four novels were for adults. All of them were rejected. His fifth novel, also intended for adults, actually became his first children's book. Space Station Seventh Grade was published in 1982, when Jerry Spinelli was 41 years old and had six children living at home.
He has won the Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee and a Newbery Honour Award for Wringer. He has written many other award-winning books for young readers, including Stargirl, Knots in My Yo-Yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid, and Crash. Spinelli has been touched by the Holocaust since his childhood. In writing Milkweed, he questioned his own credentials in writing a Holocaust book and then remembered what he has told young writers for years: "Write what you care about."
When Jerry Spinelli is not writing, he likes to play tennis, pick berries, gaze up at the stars, and spend time with his 16 grandchildren. He lives in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania with his wife, fellow children's book author Eileen Spinelli.