Jodi Picoult, in her 19 previous provocative, plot-driven novels, has tackled a broad spectrum of timely social issues—from child abuse and capital punishment to organ donation and Asperger’s syndrome.
In The Storyteller, her latest, she weaves together two parallel stories from the darkest hours of the Holocaust. The link between these two stories is Sage Singer, a young, non-practicing Jewish woman in a small New Hampshire town. Sage is a loner—her father died suddenly when she was 19, her mother succumbed to cancer three years later, and she sustained significant facial scarring in an auto accident. Single, and a talented baker, she works the night shift at a local boutique bakery.
Sage’s grandmother, Minka, lives at an assisted living facility nearby. Though they are close, Minka has never shared the story of her childhood in Poland—even when Sage asked about the numbers tattooed on her grandmother’s forearm.
Sage attends a weekly grief support group, and she bonds with the newest member, Josef Weber, a 90-year-old widower. Josef is beloved in town as a teacher, coach and volunteer. But one day he unexpectedly confesses that he was an SS officer at Auschwitz, and that he now wants to die—and would like Sage to help him do so. Sage is stunned, but after a long discussion of his involvement in the Hitler Youth movement, and subsequent advancement to the SS, she begins to believe him. At the same time, she finally convinces Minka that it is time to tell her story of her life in Poland, and the horrors she faced—first in the Ghetto, then in two concentration camps before being rescued from Auschwitz in 1945.
Picoult deftly juxtaposes these two stories, which unfold along parallel lines: that of the German boy, “raised with scruples,” who by some “toxic cocktail of cells and schooling” became a participant in mass genocide; and her own grandmother’s harrowing memories of family members dying from starvation, and her tenuous survival in the camps, where “death had become part of the landscape.” She explores, along with the reader, the perhaps unanswerable questions of who has the power to forgive—and are there some acts which are simply unforgiveable?
The Storyteller is another thought-provoking novel from Picoult. Sadly, it is also one that is still timely, as episodes of genocide still occur today, and are somehow still ignored.