Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Milkweed
"They don't live here. They live in Heaven."
"Where's that?"
"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.


19 comments:

Alex (Sleepless Reader) said...

Sounds a bit sad, like a WWII Oliver Twist. Love the cover and how unexpected it is for the book your described.

Jill Broderick said...

I really want to read one of his books. I did try one (I don't remember which but it wasn't this one) and I couldn't get into it, but I've heard so many good things about him. It sounds like I would like this one!

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

I'm familiar with Spinelli but have never heard of this book. It sounds fabulous!

Athira / Aths said...

World war 2 Oliver Twist is a nice way to describe this book. I did find the cover very unexpected for the kind of book it was.

Athira / Aths said...

I think this is certainly a book you will appreciate. I am curious about his other books now - I need to check them out.

Athira / Aths said...

It does, right? I liked it more than I expected to.

Helen Murdoch said...

I read this one over a year ago so the details are fuzzy. I remember liking it, but not loving it as much as others have and perhaps that's because I have read so much Holocaust literature that not a lot was new to me. The students at my school like it though, so that's good.

Athira / Aths said...

Yeah, I don't think it is one of the best Holocaust literature out there, but I did still like it. It kind of grew on me although I wasn't so enamored at the beginning.

Piyush Garyali said...

Thank you, thank you!

Athira / Aths said...

Heh. :) You're welcome! Thanks for gifting. :)

Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis said...

I just checked Maniac Magee out of the library for a Newbery Medal winners reading challenge. I'm looking forward to it, and I'll add Milkweed to my TBR list too.

Athira / Aths said...

I'm curious to know how you find Maniac Magee! It's on my list too. I hope you enjoy Milkweed as well.

softdrink said...

It sounds a bit like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas...that naïveté about what's really happening.

Athira / Aths said...

You're right. Now that you mention it, it does sound similar in that respect. Though I did find the naivete in this book more appropriate for the boy. I think i struggled with it a little bit in the Boyne book.

Vasilly said...

I've read a book or two by Spinelli before. Milkweed sounds like a book that I shouldn't miss. I'm going to add it to my reading list.

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you will enjoy it. I will be looking forward to your thoughts. I am curious about the other Spinelli books.

Jan Niechwiadowicz said...

They were not Polish camps but German camps imposed on
occupied Poland

Nishita said...

Lot of people recommended this book to me but this is the first time I read a review and found out what it's about. It sounds like a wonderful read, and I must make the time for it.

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