Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed has received tremendous critical acclaim.Milkweed is the winner of the Golden Kite Award for fiction, the Carolyn W. Field Award, and the ALA Best Books for Young Adults Award, and many others. Although the novel's subject matter, the Holocaust, is extremely difficult for young adults to grasp, Spinelli addresses it in such a way that the horrors of the Holocaust are not overt. Instead, readers who have the background to paint their own mental images are able to do so while those who are less knowledgeable can focus on the story and the characters.
There are few young adult novels that address the Holocaust effectively and realistically. While Milkweed is purely fictional, it depicts a historically accurate setting and creates characters who might really have existed (with the exception of Dr. Korczak, who was a real person). Although the novel does not go into detail when describing the horrific scenes of dead bodies and Nazi atrocities, readers experience these events vicariously through Misha; thus, the perspective is one of innocence. One can almost imagine Misha and Anne Frank meeting one another and discussing the inherent good in people and what they might do once the war is over.
Despite the devastation of his surroundings, somehow Misha finds hope in even the darkest of hours. This is indicative of what some Holocaust survivors have written and spoken about: the need to focus on possibility amid destruction and devastation.
It is remarkable when readers consider how little the events Misha experiences affect him; his character does not change at all over the course of the novel. Ironically, it is as if the events of the Holocaust gave Misha life whereas they represented death for so many others. Before he met Uri and Janina, Misha had neither an identity nor a family. The desperate situation precipitated by the Nazi occupation strangely gave Misha both of these. Misha is like the "milkweed plant...growing by a heap of rubble." In spite of everything, Misha survives.
Published in 2003, Milkweed has become a seminal work in language arts and English curricula at both the middle and high school levels.
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Milkweed is a holocaust survival tale that is set in Nazi-occupied Warsaw during World War II. The narrative is viewed through the eyes of a young boy who is an absolute dreamer. It begins in 1939, in the Warsaw Ghetto. The main protagonist is a precocious young orphan known to the people around him as Stopthief, because this is what they shout at him when he steals food to give to others. Though his origins are unknown, he is also called a Gypsy, because of his dark eyes and dark hair, and also called a Jew.
Later, Stopthief befriends a group of orphaned Jewish boys and is allowed to share their sleeping quarters. He also steals food for them, and is given a name from Uri, who acts as a protector for the young boy. Uri calls him Misha Pilsudski, and forces Misha to commit to memory a made-up story about his background as a Gypsy so that people will not try to kill him for being a Jew. Even with Uri there to explain, Misha does not entirely understand the seriousness of the world around him. One major example of Misha’s innocence is the fact that he wants to become a Nazi when he gets older because he likes how the Nazi officers look. He and the other kids call the Nazi’s Jackboots because of their boots, and Misha wants to also have these shiny boots and wear a hat, just like the Nazi officers.
Misha deals with the changing world from unique viewpoint. When Misha sees people running, presumably from fear or for their lives, he simply thinks there is a race happening. He also likens bombs to sauerkraut kettles, tanks to beetles and machine guns to praying mantises. All around Misha and his group of friends, in fact, are examples of war, including fear, human torture, dead bodies, and other forms of loss. The story is told from Misha’s viewpoint, however, and much of the atrocities that readers might be used to from other holocaust accounts are glossed over rather quickly and innocently due to Misha’s worldview as a dreamer.
Through his thievery, Misha comes to know a Jewish girl named Janina Milgrom. The Milgroms, too, are eventually forced to move to the Warsaw Ghetto. Misha eventually becomes part of the family, even happily accompanying them into the ghetto, thus highlighting his innocence in the face of his troubling surroundings. Misha is still small enough to slip through the fences and forage for food, and yet despite his and Janina’s efforts to procure food, Mrs. Milgrom dies.
One day, Misha sees Uri in a nice hotel and is warned to escape from the ghetto. He tries to warn his family about the trains and how the ghetto’s inhabitants are not being relocated and freed, but no one believes him. One day he comes home to find that everyone, including the orphans, have been taken, and is angered that he has not been taken too. He even tries turning himself in a number of times.
Misha goes to live on a farm for three years, and eventually resettles into life after the war. He migrates to the United States and is given the name Jack Milgrom. He marries, though his wife, Vivian, eventually leaves him due to his behavior which results from his harrowing experience. His daughter, Katherine, finds him one day and introduces his granddaughter, Wendy, saying that he can pick the middle name. Jack chooses Janina for Wendy’s middle name, and is given a new name from Wendy: Poppynoodle, which is a term of endearment.
Milkweed deals with the themes of loss and disillusionment, as well as identity, and relates most of these themes through the eyes of a child. The narrative is all the more bittersweet because the reader knows the tragic history of the Warsaw Ghetto and what happens to most of its inhabitants at the end of the infamous train rides. Many readers/critics have noted that Spinelli’s fresh take on looking at the Holocaust through the eyes of an innocent child allows readers to breathe a bit easier. The extreme weight of the events that have been portrayed by the media and are known through historic accounts are still told somewhat in the narrative, but due to Misha’s unrealistic worldview as a dreamer, many hard and harsh points are glossed over, thus allowing the reader to move on to the next point-of-interest for Misha. In truth, the narrative as witnessed from Misha’s standpoint also attests to the durability of the human spirit despite pain and heartache.
Identity is also a powerful theme in the narrative, and Misha is constantly racked with identity issues. Misha is originally known as Stopthief due to his constant thieving, and is also called other names in the novel, such as Gypsy and Jew. He is then given the name Misha, and instructed by Uri to tell others that he is a Gypsy. By telling people he is a Gypsy, Misha might escape being killed for being a Jew. Perhaps a more telling example is that Misha wants to be a Nazi when he gets older because he likes their boots. And when he migrates to the United States, his identity changes again. He is then called Jack Milgrom. The narrative shows that identity, though an important factor for many, can actually be detrimental to others, especially during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and with the atrocities of World War II.