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Uri said, “Stay away from Jackboots.”

“They smile,” I said.

“They hate you.”

I laughed.  “They don’t hate me.  They say, ‘Very good, little Gypsy.’  They salute me.  I want to be a Jackboot.”

He smacked me in the face.  My babka went flying.  “You’re not a Jackboot.  You’ll never be a Jackboot.  You are what you are.”

(from Milkweed, page 22)

Milkweed is the tale of a young boy alone on the streets of Warsaw at the beginning of World War II who uses his small size and quick feet to survive.  He is taken in by Uri, the leader of a group of Jewish orphans who are homeless and steal food (and sometimes other things) to survive.  The little boy doesn’t know his name or how old he is, and he doesn’t remember his family.  He wears a yellow stone around his neck, which he believes came from his father, and he insists he is a Gypsy, not a Jew. Jerry Spinelli opens the book rather abruptly with the young boy stealing a loaf of bread and then meeting Uri for the first time.  Uri invents the young boy’s past and gives him a name, Misha Pilsudski, and Misha is so entranced by the story that he believes it is true.

While scavenging for food, Misha meets 6-year-old Janina, whom he grows to love as a sister.  When Janina’s family is forced to move to the Warsaw Ghetto, Misha brings her family food, and when he and the other homeless boys are rounded up by the “Jackboots,” or Nazis, and brought to the ghetto after it is sealed off from the rest of the city, Misha comes face-to-face with death and hunger.  Yet his small size and quick feet enable him to fit through a two-brick opening in the wall, and he joins many other children in smuggling food into the ghetto.

Misha becomes part of Janina’s family, and although Janina’s mother never embraces him, her father and eventually her uncle do.  He wears the armband that the Jews are required to wear, he celebrates Hanukkah with them in their small room, he moves from a bed of rubble with the other boys to the family’s cramped room, and stands at attention with them during line ups.  When the Nazis begin liquidating the ghetto in 1942, the book takes on an even more ominous tone.

Milkweed is a heartbreaking story told from the point of view of a young, naïve boy.  Spinelli does a wonderful job showing the horrors of the war through Misha’s eyes, and even though I was able to decipher his childish observations and knew what he was seeing and what would happen to the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto, I felt like I was experiencing it with Misha.  Oh, how I wanted to see what Misha saw:  the doctor who runs the orphanage marching the children happily to the ghetto and the awesomeness of hundreds of marching soldiers and huge tanks moving into the city.  I wanted everything to be okay, but I knew better…and Misha should have, too.

The biggest problem I had with Milkweed was Misha’s naivety.  While we never know for sure how old Misha is, Janina guesses that based on his size in comparison to hers, he is about 8.  I know that 8-year-olds are innocent and may not understand things such as war, but Misha saw things with his own eyes, things that were obviously horrible, yet he continued to not understand.  He sees the Nazis forcing a Jewish man to scrub the sidewalk with his beard.  He sees another Jew stripped naked and blasted with cold water in the winter, and yet another Jew strapped onto a horse backward and on his stomach.  After seeing these things, Misha says he is glad he is not a Jew, but he does not heed the warnings about blending in with people on the street, he believes the Jackboots are smiling at him in a friendly way, and he thinks the crowds plodding toward the ghetto are marching in a parade.  Beyond the things that he witnesses, one would assume that he would mature with the passage of time, but it is difficult to gauge how much time has passed due to the choppy narrative.  But Milkweed opens in 1939 with the start of the war, the ghetto was created in 1940, and the Jews were shipped out of the ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942, so time passes, yet Misha never seems to grow wiser.

I also had issues with the end of the book, beginning with the liquidation of the ghetto.  The events that transpire involving Misha seem farfetched, and Spinelli just rushes through these scenes and the years after the war.  These are the scenes where Spinelli could have shown character evolution, but they seem like an afterthought, with decades passing in a matter of sentences.

However, it pains me to write these paragraphs about the book because even though these thoughts must be expressed, I really liked Milkweed.  Spinelli brings a lot of important themes to the forefront, namely whether it is possible for children to retain their innocence when death and brutality surround them and invade every aspect of their lives and the importance of identity with regard to survival.  Misha had no identity during a time when what you were was a matter of life and death.  Milkweed is an powerful book that despite its flaws, made me cry and will not be forgotten anytime soon.

Disclosure: I borrowed Milkweed from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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