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Milkweed

So, I seem to be drawn to World War II / Holocaust stories. Or at least, I keep having them given, lent, or recommended to me. Whether that means I’m drawn to them or that other people just think I am, I’m not sure. In any case…

This one is fabulous. Like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, it works off the poignancy of the narrator’s ignorance. Unlike it, this one doesn’t end quite so tragically. The main character is a Gypsy boy who lives on the streets of Warsaw. When asked, he says his name is “Stopthief,” because that’s all he’s ever been called. He gets adopted by a group of Jewish street boys, the leader of whom, Uri, gives him an identity that he readily adopts. “Stopthief” becomes Misha Pilsudski, who has seven brothers and five sisters who live in a Gypsy wagon train.
Misha is small, quick, and always gets away with stealing food. This is how he survives. A few quotes about this:

  • “I believe this was the first rule of life that I learned, though it was a twitch in my muscles rather than a thought in my head: always be the first to move. As long as that happened, they would have to catch up. And I could not be caught.”
  • “There was a large truck with the back open. Soldiers were tossing loaves of bread… I was fascinated. I had not known bread could be given.”

The band of boys reminds me a bit of the Lost Boys, and Uri is a definitive Peter Pan-like character: the charming ringleader, engaging in mischief in himself but getting all the other boys out of theirs. (This, in turn, made me think of Peter Panzerfaust – a comics version of Peter Pan set in WWII. You comics/graphic novels fans know what I mean!)

Then, Misha meets Janina. Misha quickly adopts her as a sister and begins to bring her family food. Even after they get moved to the ghetto (they’re Jews), he sneaks through the wall every night and comes back with enough food for all four of them (Janina and her father love Misha; her mother and her uncle despise him: but he comes nonetheless). It’s one of the ironic, not-understanding aspects of this novel that, even though he can sneak out of the ghetto every night, Misha always comes back. He does not understand.

Later, Janina’s father makes Misha understand what is happening when Jews are being sent out in trains. He begs Misha to take Janina away and not come back – but they keep coming back. Some things are more important than life…

In typical Spinelli style, strong images are used throughout. Beautiful and heartbreaking images, both.

  • “Death was as familiar to us as life. Even though still breathing, walking, they looked as though they were waiting for someone to tell them they were dead.”
  • “Today’s Sunday.” “What’s Sunday?” “The day they don’t shoot you.”
  • Misha watches a person crawl out from under the pile of corpses on the cart headed for the graveyard – so sick and immobile he had been mistaken for a dead man.
  • Misha and Janina take shelter from a bombing in an open grave… with a body in it.
  • Misha’s friend Enos is laughing hysterically. Misha asks, “What’s funny?”  “What’s funny? Everything! They herd us in here like animals, they build a wall around us, they starve us, they freeze us, they beat us, they shoot us, they hang us, they set us on fire, and then – guess what? …The Russians come along and say, ‘That’s not enough. You Nazis are too easy on them. So we’re going to bomb them!’ …You don’t think that’s the funniest thing you ever heard of?”
  • After Misha has been bringing Janina’s family food: “Uncle Shepsel, propped on his elbow, was pointing at me and saying, ‘Why is he sleeping here? He smells.’ ‘I regret to inform you,’ said Mr. Milgrom, ‘that you are not a rose garden yourself these days.’ Uncle Shepsel pounded the floor. ‘He’s not family!’ Mr. Milgrom looked straight at him. ‘He is now.’ (Uncle Shepsel: what an ungrateful soul. After this, Misha started introducing himself as “Misha Milgrom.”)
  • “Night after night we did this. We stood at the end of the fallen smokestack and stared at the trains coming and going: the parades of people climbing into the boxcars, the screech of wheels, the clack of dogs’ teeth, the locomotives coughing – like dying Jews.”

So, it’s a beautiful story. A story of finding family in unexpected ways. Of the surprising selflessness of an orphan boy. Of living off of cleverness and resourcefulness and love. Of putting love for family above life itself.

Read it. You will not be disappointed.

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