Saturday, September 27, 2008


Spinelli, Jerry. 2003. Milkweed. Read by Ron Rifkin. Listening Library.

As soon as I began listening to this book on my mp3 player, I knew that the voice sounded familiar. Ron Rifkin's serious and recognizable voice also narrates the audiobook version of Lois Lowry's, The Giver.

Rifkin has the perfect voice for this haunting Holocaust story. He manages the seriousness that the book demands, without the graveness of an adult, for the protagonist in this book is a young child, possibly only 8 or so, when the Nazis march into Warsaw.

Thief, Gypsy, Stupid, Jew, Misha, Jack - the protagonist in Milkweed progresses through many names and identities. When the book begins in Warsaw, 1939, the boy identifies only by what he has been called as long as he can remember, "Stop! Thief!" He is small and quick - his greatest and most useful attributes. He has no name, no family and no history - although the listener comes to understand that he is an orphaned Gypsy. In time, he begins to identify with a band of orphaned Jewish boys living on the streets.

His tender age, lack of formal education, and status as a non-Jew, enables Misha (for so he becomes named) to offer a unique, insightful and unvarnished perspective on life in the Warsaw ghetto under the control of the Nazis. With childhood innocence he wonders why the other boys are not enthralled with the exciting "jackboot" parade, or why a Jewish man would be washing the sidewalk with his own beard. At first he announces, "I'm glad I am not a Jew," and wishes for the shiny boots of the Nazis. Later, however, he completely identifies with the Jews who have accepted him into their midst, and he chronicles the increasingly horrific conditions of the Warsaw ghetto.

What makes this story so compelling is the fact that Misha, due to his age and limited life experiences, is incapable of passing judgment on the events that unfold. He merely recounts the story and adapts to the downward spiral of human conditions. At first he steals loaves of bread and sausages and all manner of delicious foods. He later is forced to eat rats, spoiled cabbages and garbage. Finally, he scrounges for fat at the bottom of an empty garbage can. In all instances, he shares with his "adopted" Jewish family and a house of Jewish orphans - never losing his innate sense of fairness and responsibility to those who have treated him with decency.

He chronicles the increasing callousness with which the Ghetto inhabitants regard the dead - stripping them of their shoes and clothes, if they are lucky enough to have them. Death carts, flame-throwing guards, beatings, murders, deportations to "the ovens," Nazi soldiers with white-gloved girlfriends in Sunday dress tossing bread scraps and taking photos - Misha reports it all.

He is street-wise and contextually ignorant. He knows only what he has lived and lacks a framework in which he can process the atrocity of the Holocaust. It is this combination that provides a framework for explaining the Holocaust in terms that a child can understand. A very compelling book that highlights the depravities of human nature side by side with the indomitable human spirit.

About 5 hours on CD or mp3 download.

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