"Call me thief. Call me stupid. Call me Gypsy. Call me Jew. Call me one-eared Jack. I don't care," declares Misha, the narrator of Jerry Spinelli's wonderful new book, Milkweed. An orphan in Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1939, Misha was a boy of the streets, innocent and invisible, until he met Uri and started living in a cellar below a barbershop. It was Uri who named him, then created a family and a past for him. As Misha Pilsudski, he is a Gypsy. He has nothing, knows nothing and accepts the world as he finds it. Born nameless into a world gone crazy, Misha is free. He's happy to be a Gypsy; at least it's an identity. He can go anywhere and sleep anywhere, as long as he avoids the Nazis. "Everything is for me," he says, as he wanders his city. He marches alongside the Jews on the way to the ghetto, gives food to an orphanage, steals from the "fox fur" ladies and sneaks out at night to steal food to bring back to the ghetto.
Underlying this story of war and the Holocaust is a young boy's search for a name and something to believe in. In the ghetto, Misha and his friends sleep like kittens huddled together under a braided rug. "In the morning light, most of us would begin to believe in mothers and oranges again," he says, but they debated whether or not to believe in angels and heaven. Eventually, Misha comes to think of the rest of Warsaw, outside the ghetto, as heaven. He finds a two-brick hole in the wall and crawls through it to get there. "In the ghetto all was gray: the people were gray, the smells were gray. Here everything was colors to me," Misha says, "the red clang of the streetcars, blue music from phonographs."
Author of the Newbery Medal-winning Maniac Magee, Jerry Spinelli has fashioned a novel of beauty out of the ugliness of the Holocaust. Milkweed is a narrative to savor. Revel in its language and images and meanings. It is a superb book, one of the best you will ever read.
Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.