"They don't live here. They live in Heaven."
"I don't know," I said. "Enos says it's right here, on this side of the wall, but I never saw an angel over here. Kuba says it's in Russia. Olek says Washington America."
"What's Washington America?"
"Enos says it's a place with no wall and no lice and lots of potatoes."
Jew. Gypsy. Stopthief. Runt. These are some of the names by which the protagonist of Milkweed is known. He doesn't remember what he was called by his parents, nor does he remember the parents either. His very first memory is running. Running away after stealing something. A friend names his Misha, and that becomes his name for a long time. He makes his living by stealing from the streets of Warsaw, he enjoys parades, and loves shiny German boots. He wants to become a Nazi some day because they smile, throw flowers and laugh. Until one day, something happens that changes his mind about them.
I hadn't heard about Milkweed until my friends gifted me this book for my birthday this year. Couple of things attracted me to it right away - the Newbery Medal label on the cover and the fact that the book is set in World War II. It typically takes me a while to get to a book on my physical shelf, but the fact that I knew next-to-nothing about this book made me pick it up sooner. It's now been about a month since I read it, so some of the details have evaporated from my gray matter, but I do remember enjoying it a lot.
Milkweed is written in first person. The boy of many names, but who I will address as Misha for now, also happens to be a very naive character, which makes for very interesting observations. Misha is ignorant of a lot of things and actually likes the Nazis a lot. When he sees tanks and Nazi officers and Nazi parades, he usually has a huge smile on his face. Sometimes, he salutes them. He wants to be them. He doesn't yet know anything about the horrors that are coming, nor does he see any hint of it. Misha is also very fast, which makes his main means of feeding himself - stealing - very easy. He makes a few friends on the streets and lives with them.
After the Nazis take him and his friends to the Polish camp, he still manages to eke out his living as before. His tiny frame makes it easy for him to sneak out of the camp at nights, and when he brings food - he gives a good amount to the doctor who is looking after orphans, and to the family that he has grown close to. Through this family, he becomes friends and adopted siblings with a girl named Janina.
The friendship between Janina and Misha was heartbreaking. Janina loses a parent, and still has a few people from her family. Misha has none. Janina wants to be like Misha - a midnight thief, but both her father and Misha do not want her to join that club. At one point, however, things get very tragic for them, and that's the point when Misha changes completely.
To me, Milkweed was more than just the story of a person coming of age during the war. It was about an orphan who wants to give something to other orphans, without realizing or understanding his altruistic gesture. It is about a child who knew no parents, and is thus happy to believe the first story that was bestowed on him by a friend. It is about a boy who knew no family but when he was welcomed into the folds of one family, he was fiercely protective and proud to be one of them.
Milkweed is written as if from Misha's memory. He talks of his camp days and the aftermath. Even though his post-camp days span a few pages, they are just as harrowing as his experiences in the camp. He sees sights that no child should see. His transition from the boy who loved Nazis to one who learned how to avoid them is shown very subtly. But most painful was his transition from the pre-war to the post-war days - he finds that he has lost his voice.
Jerry Spinelli, the author, won a Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee, which also sounds as fascinating as this one sounded. After reading Milkweed, I'm eager to check out his award-winning book.
I received this book as a birthday gift from my two wonderful friends, Piyush and Kalpana.