Monday, August 09, 2004

Tabula Rasa

Milkweed, by Jerry Spinelli, Read by Ron Rifkin, Random House Inc., 2003

Milkweed is the newest novel from acclaimed children's author Jerry Spinelli. It follows a young homeless Gypsy thief who, for a time, is taken in by an older Jewish boy also living on Warsaw’s streets. When the narrator is asked his name and his age, he doesn't know. He has assumed for a while it is Stopthief because that is what everyone says to him. Is he Jewish? He doesn't know. Does he have a mother and a father? He doesn't know. The older boy, Uri, gives him a name and a made-up story of his past, dubbing him Misha Pilsudski. Uri introduces him to a gang of other young boys in the same parentless, homeless condition, all of them thieves. They steal food mostly, just what they need to survive, though they are not beyond stealing toys, jewelry, or anything else that presents itself.

As this “young adult*” book began, I first assumed it would have a similar take on the familiar category of teenage fiction about Nazism and World War II. Instead of following a young Jewish boy or girl, however, it follows a young Gypsy who knows nothing of what is happening in 1939 Poland. While there are many, many books about Jewish conditions during World War II, I’m unfamiliar with those about other victims of The Holocaust. There are even decidedly fewer about Gypsy boys who early in the book admire the Nazis and aspire to be one.

Episodic, Milkweed takes us on backstreet tour of Warsaw before, during, and after the war, ducking in through alleys and abandoned businesses and hiding in cellars and the shadows. From this safe vantage, the reader, like Misha, has an outsider’s view of the city, a view of the world from the back of the crowd.

Misha constantly dreams of becoming a Nazi with their high polished black boots, enthralled by their uniforms and the parades and the tanks. He calls them Jackboots, so taken is he with this item of clothing. He does not understand the Nazi’s plans or their hatreds of the Poles for the Jews. Spinelli seems to imagine Misha as a perennial innocent, never quite knowing what is going on, never quite believing the world is as bad as it becomes. He accepts everything with the same equanimity, his emotional register mostly documenting other’s responses.

As a tabula rasa in which whatever environment he finds himself in, Misha sympathizes with but never quite understands what is going on. With Uri, he leaves a small portion of his stolen food for the local orphanage without even grasping that he is like them. This charity leads him to other acts of selflessness, including leaving food for a family from which he steals the last ripe tomatoes in Warsaw. He becomes enchanted by their young daughter, Janina Milgrom, and later friends with the family, going so far as to move in with them when all the Jewish families are moved into the ghetto.

One of Milkweed’s more chilling scenes comes before the ghetto, when Misha returns to a certain calliope he has loved for its beautiful horses. He has fallen in love with a specific horse and when someone chops it out for firewood, he joins a mob hunting for the supposed Jewish criminal. The book hauntingly and subtly shows the insidiousness of mob mentality. Misha is our double, our face in the mirror demonstrating how easily it is to become caught up in a group’s mentality when your emotions are at fever pitch.

The effect of his lack of knowledge and his easy impressionability has the ability to put the reader into the mindset of an alien time and alien circumstance more effectively than other means might have. We see the Nazis through new eyes. When a pair of young Jackboots and their girlfriends visit the ghetto, Misha doesn't recognize a camera and thinks that they are to be shot. The matter-of-factness of his belief that violence underscores every Jackboot action is so plainly stated that it invests every gesture with a potent vicious inherencey.

Life in the ghetto demonstrates ever lowering standards with the brutal clarity of Misha’s observances. As he sneaks through a small gap in the wall that rings it into the outside world the street thieves have taken to calling Heaven, the food he smuggles back slowly becomes smaller in quantity and meaner in quality. Near the end, as conditions worsen all over Poland, he returns on night with merely handfuls of grease fat the Milgrom family eat from his dirty fingers. Inside the ghetto, things go from bad to worse. All the trees are chopped down, all the dogs disappear from the street, vendors sell skinned rats as squirrels, and then one day there are no vendors anymore.

And through it all, Misha remains oddly loyal to the idea of Jackboots, still wants to be one even while accepting the brutality of their actions as normalcy. It takes a parade through the ghetto by Himmler himself, and Himmler's unimpressiveness (the banality of evil?) to dislodge the idea from Misha's mind. Spinelli is excellent at getting at a child's mind and how it works, how a notion becomes an idèe fixe, how it takes a curious kind of disappointment to break through the obsession.

The differing characteristics of the ghetto and the world outside are vividly depicted through color and sound, everything muted and gray behind the walls, the wealth of a city conjured in fox furs and parcels of bread wrapped in paper. As things get worse in Warsaw, Milkweed embodies everything with a preternatural sadness: police whistles, pickled eggs, a simple comb as a Hanukkah present, a voice in the street at night, and an old shoe in a pocket. When the trains arrive in the middle of winter, Misha sees them at first as parades, but the constant disappearances he relates street by street as if block by block he is finally waking to who and what the Jackboots really are.

The last fourth of the book follows Misha after the war, as he leaves Poland for America and grows into a curious adulthood. For a while he is a street ranter, then a salesman, then just an old, old man. The book’s last images are of hope, of a new young girl named Janina who gives Misha the final name by which he will be called.

Spinelli is an effective and powerful writer and he demonstrates what is lacking in the current spate of children’s books that seek to act as a clever antidote for the earlier cloying sentimentality of books for the young. The writing manages to be spare yet lush, almost a necessity when writing for this age group, a trick managing to be compact without sketchy, poetic without being flowery. As such, his books gain a timeless quality and an agelessness. Marketed differently, there’s no reason Milkweed couldn’t have sold as a novel for adults, the writing is that pitch perfect.

Ron Rifkin reads with sureness and a voice that is slight yet confident. By only slightly dropping his volume or softening a word, he is able to convey a range of powerful emotion. His register is in gentleness and that serves as an effective counter to the violence of the time.

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