Book Review || Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli

This novel is one of those that will haunt you, not only because of what happens in the novel but because of your own personal knowledge of what happened during the Holocaust.

Milkweed follows the exploits of Stopthief, one of several boys orphaned in the city of Warsaw, Poland during the second World War. His only experience of the world before he is found by fellow orphan Uri is of theft and survival. He has hardly any memory of his parents and does not even have a name, and so 'Milkweed' immerses the reader in the world of a boy with no identity and thus an innocence that keeps him from understanding the truth of what is happening around him.

I think the innocence of how he sees what is happening is the scariest thing about this book. The marching German troops make him excited - a parade, he thinks. He thinks it might be fun to be painted yellow, to become a Jackboot. When the Jewish families are kicked out of the city, he also believes it's a parade.

Seeing the horrors of what people went through through the eyes of a child is certainly a disturbing aspect - there is no explanation for what we see, because he doesn't have one. There is no softening of the blow, because it's what he sees.

Misha's innocence is also what helps him to survive. He helps with what he can understand, so when it comes to helping others survive, he is in the front ranks. He shares his food and finds with his group of orphans before he shares them with orphans in a home before he shares them with the Milgroms, who become his adoptive family.

Misha's identity is at the crux of the novel. Because he doesn't know who he is, he adopts the practices of everyone. It is only when he is older that he comes to realise the horror of what he has experienced.

The problem with identity is that it consists of so many aspects, including what your parents teach you, what religion teaches you, and what society teaches you. Stopthief does not care about these things until Uri gives him an identity and tries to tell him where he belongs and what is wrong or right. It is these things that people teach their children that result in love and tolerance, or hate and prejudice. And unfortunately this still happens today. As a child you have no reason to hate anyone but it is what the adults around you, those you look up to, say and do that help you to form impressions and opinions based on experiences that are not your own. Misha Pisuldski was like this: a blank canvas that absorbed what was going on around him. I found it disturbing that Misha's fellow orphans insult each other as Jews, using the derogatory notions of those prejudiced against them. This in some way reflects how easily we are influenced by others when it comes to forming our identities.

The novel's main theme of identity is complemented by that of hope, signified by such things as the Milkweed plant, which grows in the ghetto no matter what and, Misha's angels. Caring for others is also a theme, since Misha spends much of his life helping others to survive and thereafter grieving for those whom he lost.

'Milkweed' is a stunning rendition of innocence lost and an excellent introduction to some of the occurrences during the Holocaust. It is deepened by what you personally know of the Holocaust, and so you can be certain that it will have a different effect on everyone who reads it.


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