Saturday, February 20, 2010
Milkweed: A decent tale about the a Jew's perspective from the Warsaw ghetto. Milkweed is a young adult novel told from the perspective of a Jewish orphan who is not one hundred percent keen on the politics and horrors striking around him.
The story is told from the point of view of Misha, the orphan, and is quite scattered and confusing since the narrator is both confused and in-the-dark about what is going on around him. At times, it was a little difficult to piece together what was happening, but since I have done a great deal of study on the Holocaust and World War II, it wasn't that hard to piece together what he was talking about. However, if I didn't know as much as I did about this time period and what was going on, I might have been just as confused as Misha, given I was a young, middle school reader--the audience of this novel.
First Misha is told to be labeled as a gypsy. They were also targets at the time, not just Jews. Jews are called very nasty names throughout, to show the utter discrimination and level that they were brought to by the Nazi Party and surrounding Germans. Misha, being an orphan, must steal food to stay alive. In his attempts, he comes across a young girl named Janina who is also Jewish. They become good friends and he steals foods for her.
Soon enough, Jews are forced into ghettos. Misha and Janina are both penned into the Warsaw ghetto, and ghetto life is thus depicted here on out in the book. There is little food and warmth--all trees are cut down around them. Walls go up around them to keep them in. People are crammed together to live. People are shot or hung daily; bodies of all ages lie in the streets. It is a shocking life for these young children.
More horrors come: Janina's mother dies of typhus, Misha's friend is hung in the square with a sign over his chest warning others not to steal, and then the deportations come. People think they are going to a peaceful place to live. They think that when people mention "ovens" that food will be baked in them. We all know otherwise. It kills me that there was so much optimism in such a dark time, when in actuality, the brutality and horror only got worse once they boarded the trains to be sent to concentration camps.
But can we blame them? Isn't it honorable to keep thinking the best of things in such a dark time? Or, is it better to try to be realistic? But how could they be realistic? How could they see that things could get even worse and darker? Who would have thought that man could stoop to the level of creating labor camps with the aim of mass killing an entire population? Could that even be imagined or dreamed? We can see this in retrospect, but we cannot assume or blame them for not thinking this. It is too cruel to think this of human nature. It's not something you see everyday.
Back to the book: Misha is warned from an old orphan friend of his named Uri, who escaped and claimed a false German identity, to run because the trains led them to bad, bad places. Misha tries to take this advice, taking Janina away from her family. Janina refuses to leave her father and runs to the trains, thinking they will take her to a candy land. Trying to save her, Misha is shot and left for dead.
However, Misha is not killed. His ear was blown off, but he is much alive. He runs into a farm which keeps him for the next three years. He works there until it is safe to venture out into the world. Misha never does reconnect with Janina--we can only assume that they were killed in the concentration camp. Misha tells his tales on a street corner where he meets his wife and has a baby. She leaves him afterwards though because she cannot get over his psyche and strange habits, being damaged from this period of his life.
The book ends with him working in a grocery store. His daughter comes with her new daughter and asks him to provide a middle name for his granddaughter. Not surprisingly, he comes up with Janina.
The title Milkweed comes from Janina and Misha's conversations about angels and heaven. It's hard for them to grasp the concepts, but it's good to hold onto something light and positive during this time. The image of the milkweed seeds floating into the air is not only on the cover, but it is described throughout the book. It's the little things, the little beauties in the world to hold onto even when the rest of the world turns its back on you. There still is beauty amongst a surrounding world of hate and destruction.
This book was a very quick read, an easy read for a middle schooler. Some of my students are currently reading this for a project. I can see why some students might not like this--the ones who know more about this time period will have an easier and more enjoyable experience with this book. Personally, it didn't grab or excite me, but that could just be the material.
Overall, I would recommend this to a younger population, particularly males. But, that's not to say a girl would not enjoy this. The chapters are broken up so it is easy to pick up and put down in multiple sittings, or it could be read quickly in just a few short hours.
So what do you think of Milkweed?