Book Review: Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli

I chose to read this book after hearing some of my students talk about its unique point of view. This historical fiction novel shows readers the Holocaust from the point of view of a child who doesn’t fully understand it. We might consider the narrator and protagonist to be “special” or “slow.” He operates on a different wavelength than the rest of humanity—ignorant or innocent, depending on your outlook. His names throughout the novel (because the orphan never learned his real name), include “Stopthief” and “Misha.” Other characters refer to him as “runt,” “stupid,” “silly,” “cuckoo” and other names to help provide clues to the reader about Misha’s state of mind vis a vis the rest of society.

Misha (it’s what I’ll call him) reminds me of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” in his noble innocence and in the way the reader questions exactly what Misha knows/understands and what he chooses to see beyond. For example, Misha is tiny enough to sneak out of the ghetto, which he does nightly. He returns every night, though, bringing food to his friends and (adoptive) family. When asked why he doesn’t simply run away from the ghetto, Misha admits it’s a question he cannot answer. Like “Gimpel the Fool,” Milkweed never makes it completely clear what Misha’s motives are. Is it complete ignorance? Is it the qualities of an anti-hero? Is it simply innocence that allows him to see the best sides of all people? Neither Gimpel the Fool nor Misha are willing to question much about what they are told. In Milkweed, however, even Misha cannot completely forgive the Nazis, illustrating the horror of their deeds.

When the story begins, Misha admires the “Jackboots,” the Nazis who have been trained to walk in perfect precision with their shiny boots. Misha enjoys well-defined tasks (such as standing at attention), and walking like a Nazi is right up his alley, so their robot-like ways appeal to him. He even tells everyone that he wants to be a Jackboot one day. An orphan, Misha is often asked whether he is a Jew. He does not understand the question: he knows that Jews are people with beards who get to have their naked bodies painted with yellow paint (which he admits sounds fun), or have to use their long beards to mop the sidewalk while a crowd of onlookers laughs. More than once, Misha comments that he is not a Jew—and is glad he is not one. His simple innocence is not his personal judgment of Jews; rather, it is a reflection of the stereotypical beliefs of the time period. Instead, he tells everyone he is a Gypsy. At one point, a friend makes up a cover story for him, complete with details about Misha’s siblings, parents, grandparents, and family history. Misha loves adopting this identity, reciting the story to himself and others almost to the point of obsession. He also “adopts” a sister, whom he coaches in the ways of sneaking and stealing. Though it’s a novel about the Holocaust, it’s also Misha’s own search for an identity. As he grows, he realizes the Jackboots are not what he thought, and he decides he hates them. In the end, we are left with the story of Misha as an adult, though the ending comes quickly and glosses over much of Misha’s life. I won’t give away the details, but it’s this last part that, for me, solidifies the connection to “Gimpel the Fool.”

From a writer’s perspective, I enjoyed the book’s unique point of view. The naïve viewpoint is an interesting perspective to examine the difficult topic of the Holocaust. Though it does cause a sort of distance between the narrator and the reader (the same way I felt when reading “Gimpel the Fool”), it allows for insight through repeated motifs that bring meaning to the story. For example, Misha synthesizes people’s beliefs about heaven and life, concluding that there are invisible forces that take away dead bodies (those who have died of starvation or death and are covered with newspapers, only to be gone the next day). He’s also told different ideas about the human soul, such as what happens after death and what part of us lives on. Misha concludes that there are angels all around us, invisible angels. When Misha watches people die, he squints hard, trying to see the angels coming out of their bodies. Such motifs are repeated effectively throughout the novel, making it poignant at times despite the morbid outlook of the rest of the book. At other times, Misha’s viewpoint offers imagery that is gruesome, yet because we only hear it from Misha’s point of view, a younger reader may not entirely understand exactly what it is Misha is describing (I think this makes it more chilling!). It was a fast, engaging read—I read it in a few hours while stuck at the airport one day—that treats the difficult topic of the Holocaust in a new and engaging way.