Young adult author Jerry Spinelli is a master at creating peculiar characters, and the protagonist of his Holocaust novel Milkweed easily fits this bill.  A young orphan in the city of Warsaw, the boy knows nothing but life on the streets and remembers no other name than “Stopthief.”

It is from this point of view that we experience the Nazi occupation of Warsaw.  The boy understands little of his surroundings; his only instinct is to take what he can in order to survive.  As Stopthief is taken under the wing of an older orphan boy, he learns to steal only what he needs and to become invisible — all while coveting the shiny black boots of the Nazi soldiers.  But when he meets a young Jewish girl, he also learns what it might mean to be a part of a family.

Through Stopthief’s eyes, Spinelli gives us a glimpse of Warsaw — its humanity and its horrors — under Nazi rule, though in a unusual way.  The nature of Spinelli’s protagonist — his age, his innocence, his unawareness of the world around him — provides for a less filtered version of events than is usually seen in historical fiction.  Some scenes are blurred, as if from a child’s hazy memory, while others are sharp and clear.  Scenes that would seem horrific to an adult who understood the circumstances appear as fascinating to a child.

Presenting the narrative in this way makes for a powerful story.  Even as Stopthief does begin to find a place within Warsaw’s community of Jews and begins to better understand the atrocities occurring around him, some sense of youthful immortality is retained for much of the book.

The climax, when it comes, is chaotic, and the final chapters are jarring, for the narrative changes gears entirely.  But the book as a whole is a moving and powerful picture of a tragic and confusing time.  There is certainly no shortage of Holocaust fiction among young adult literature, but Milkweed is an example of what it looks like at its best.


~ by Molly on March 10, 2010.

2 Responses to “milkweed”

  1. I’ve been to Warsaw so am intrigued although have not read this author for some time. Nice review!

  2. […] milkweed […]

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