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Milkweed    by Jerry Spinelli order for
by Jerry Spinelli
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2006 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

This is a story of a young boy known by many names - Filthy Jew, Gypsy, Stopthief, Runt, Happy Fast, Filthy Son of Abraham ... He lives on the streets of Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Poland during World War II. He steals food, especially loaves of bread, which he shares with Doctor Korczak's orphanage. He believes in mothers and angels, and he wants to be a Nazi soldier, wear a sharp uniform and shiny boots - the soldiers are referred to as Jackboots. 'This is what the enemy does. He flies overhead in his airplane. If he sees you in the street below, he reaches out and drops a bomb on your head' - these are some thoughts of the boy with many names.

He narrates the story of Milkweed, a wild plant with pods that open and dispense feathery seeds into the air, landing anywhere to begin life again. He describes seeing them against the sky: 'a brown seed with a spray of white fluff coming out of it. It was clinging to my shirt. And suddenly the word for it was on my tongue, a word I didn't even know I knew. 'Milkweed', I said.' Red-haired Uri grabs him and settles into an alley while the sirens blare. They and others live at first in Uri's barber shop. One night Uri gives me an ID, saying 'this is who you are. Your name is Misha Pilsudski ... born a Gypsy somewhere in the land of Russia. My family, including two great-grandfathers and a great-great-grandmother who was one hundred and nine years old, traveled from place to place in seven wagons pulled by fourteen horses. There were nineteen more horses trailing the wagons, as my father was a horse trader. My mother told fortunes with cards ... I had seven brothers and five sisters, I was not the youngest but I was the smallest ... because I was once cursed by a tinker.' Misha was to tell this story often, especially that he was a 'Gypsy not a Jew'. In the city there were Finches, who told the soldiers where Jews were hiding.

Misha befriends a little girl named Janina Milgrom, and they exchange small gifts. A day comes when Janina does not appear at the window of her house - when Misha knocks on the door, a scruffy-looking man answers. In a visit to the cemetery, Misha discovers a sculpture. Uri tells him it is a stone angel. Misha notices how the snow stays piled on the angel's wings. Later, Misha remembers the angel, as whistles and sirens and yelling soldiers make ghetto residents stand rigidly in lines for many hours, from late at night to early morning - if you wavered or fell, you were kicked, and the snow would fall from your shoulders.

At first, Misha and his companions live on the ghetto streets, gathering together tightly to keep warm. He finds Janina and her family, and spends many nights with them in the ghetto. Mr. Milgrom was a pharmacist, Mrs. Milgrom a seamstress, and they work in the Nazi factories outside of the wall that runs endlessly to right and left. The brick wall is topped with glass and coils of barbed wire. Janina's mother comes to spend most of her time lying on the bed, her back facing the wall. She moans, 'I was once a human being', and one day doesn't move any more. Doctor Korczak and his charges are also confined to the ghetto, in the constant presence of Jackboots, their Jackdogs, and Flops - Jews guarding Jews.

Though Misha tries to stop her, Janina follows him in the dark of night through a very small hole in the wall (he fits through only because he's so small). He becomes a smuggler, sneaking into homes and hotels and returning to the ghetto with bags of food. Misha shares his booty with his companions, the doctor and his orphans, and with the Milgrom family. Uri comes and goes but no one knows where, and outside the wall, Misha discovers hung bodies - some were his companions - with a sign marked smuggler.

More residents are trucked in with an armband of white, marked with a blue star, and the buildings are excessively full, some living in hallways, bathrooms, on roofs, and in cellars, while vendors call out their goods: 'Fat here! Nice goose fat! Twenty zlotys, Bones! Crack the bones! Lots of marrow! Pigeon! Squirrel! Dog! ... Best offer!' Then resettlement is announced - people are taken each day to the trains at Stawki Station, everyone so happy to be relocating or possibly going home. But some don't believe it, and Misha is told by Uri and Janina's father to leave the ghetto and run, run, run - hopefully taking Janina with him.

Jerry Spinelli composed his story in short chapters, which mesmerize the reader and linger in the mind thereafter. It is an intense account of what happened in the early to mid-1940s, as the Germans under Hitler ('Number One Jackboot') and Himmler ('Number Two Jackboot') overpowered Poland, herding Jews into ghettos, and attempting to wipe out a population with atrocities beyond imagination. The author's writing is entrancing, creating strong feeling for the characters the reader comes to love and to despise. Milkweed is a lament for those Jews (and non-Jews) who suffered beyond human, rational thought.

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