by Jerry Spinelli
He’s a boy called Jew. Gypsy. Stopthief. Runt. Happy. Fast. Filthy son of Abraham.
He’s a boy who lives in the streets of Warsaw. He’s a boy who steals food for himself and the other orphans. He’s a boy who believes in bread, and mothers, and angels. He’s a boy who wants to be a Nazi some day, with tall shiny jackboots and a gleaming Eagle hat of his own. Until the day that suddenly makes him change his mind. And when the trains come to empty the Jews from the ghetto of the damned, he’s a boy who realizes it’s safest of all to be nobody.
Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli takes us to one of the most devastating settings imaginable—Nazi-occupied Warsaw of World War II—and tells a tale of heartbreak, hope, and survival through the bright eyes of a young orphan.
There’s just something about tough stories being told from a child’s perspective that makes it even tougher to read. The language in this book is so innocent, but that just seems to make the things that happen so much worse. This is the first Jerry Spinelli book I’ve read, but I’ve found that he’s great at adopting the language of a child while still managing to tell a powerful story. The language overall is just really great, and there are some incredible lines tucked away in between the pages.
“When you’re nothing, you’re free to believe in anything.”
The casual manner in which Misha describes the horrible things he sees during the war is haunting. Spinelli brings the reader into the ghettos of the Holocaust, and it’s just so sad reading about the events that went on, especially when it’s from the perspective of a child who doesn’t fully realize what he is seeing. To Misha, dead Jews in the street are just people sleeping with newspaper blankets. Jews being herded into the ghettos are just people marching in a parade. Nazis yelling in the faces of Jews are only doing so because they aren’t standing at their best attention (Misha is very good at standing at attention). He grows to be more aware of what’s going on throughout the course of the novel, but he still remains very childlike in nature and in his thoughts.
It’s also interesting seeing how a child would act when put in such a situation. Of course, this is a historical fiction novel, and the characters themselves did not exist, but Spinelli does such a great job at developing child-like characters that I do not doubt that there was some aspect of truth to it.
Though the older children were much more aware of the direness of their situation, Misha and his friend/adopted sister, Janina, were still so young (about 8 and 7, respectively, at the start of the novel) that they often did things that made me scared for their lives. Things that were done just because they were kids and didn’t know any better. Like yelling at each other despite being within earshot of Nazis who would beat them for being out past curfew. Or Janina purposefully trying to draw attention to Misha because he tried to convince her to go home to stay safe instead of following him out into the night. Janina especially throws so many temper tantrums at the absolute worst times, but that’s the great thing about this book: the kids don’t stop being kids because they just don’t have the mental capacity to realize what is going on around them. They’re still so young and naive and innocent. It’s heartbreaking.
I’m glad Spinelli takes the reader throughout Misha’s life as well and shows the impact the Holocaust had on him. As he says in the Q&A in the back of the copy I have: “I wasn’t telling the story of the war; I was telling the story of Misha.” I feel like that was a great direction to take for Milkweed, and it gave a nice sense of closure.
I highly suggest reading this book, especially if you’re a fan of historical fiction. As many books set during this time period, it’s a very powerful and lingering story. I’m definitely interested in reading more of Spinelli’s work in the future (which will be easy, as I’ve manage to collect a few of them from frequenting book sales).