Milkweed by acclaimed author Jerry Spinelli is the endearing tale of a boy with no identity at a time when one's identity meant the difference between life and death. Published in 2003, the novel has quickly become one of the most popular young adult works used by English teachers to facilitate a discussion of the Holocaust. Most impressive is Spinelli's ability to maintain the protagonist's innocence throughout the story: readers truly feel immersed in the experiences of a child who does not fully comprehend what is happening around him in the Warsaw ghetto.
Orphaned at an early age, the protagonist eventually assumes an identity that his friend, Uri, bestows upon him. Unsure whether he is a Jew, a Gypsy, or simply a boy named "Stopthief," the protagonist suddenly becomes Misha Pilsudski. While trying to steal food, Misha befriends a young girl named Janina Milgrom. When her family is forced into the Warsaw ghetto, he happily travels with them, unaware of the grave danger. Misha forges important relationships in the Warsaw ghetto against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Readers cannot help but root for Misha and Janina as they become close friends during one of the world's darkest hours. When Misha realizes that the people in the ghetto are not being "resettled" as promised, he must make important choices that will determine whether he lives or dies.
The novel's title is intriguing when one considers that milkweed is a plant that hosts monarch butterflies: beautiful but transient. Ultimately, the plant's seeds are carried off by the wind and soon forgotten. As the story comes to a close, readers are left to determine Spinelli's intentions and to whom he is referring by titling the novel Milkweed.
The novel's main theme, identity, is a touchstone for young adults who are trying to define an identity as they navigate adolescence. Much of what Misha feels about not knowing who he is will also resonate with readers of all ages.
Milkweed, penned by Newbery Medal winner Jerry Spinelli, tells the story of a young boy with no identity. The setting for this young adult novel is the Warsaw ghetto, and the time is the onset of the Holocaust in 1939.
The novel opens with a dream or a memory; the narrator is not sure which. He is running, having stolen a loaf of bread, and is being chased. "Stop, thief!" someone yells. Exhausted, he collapses and is pulled into an alley by a stranger who warns him that he should be careful because soon he will be chased by "Jackboots" instead of old women. Suddenly, the city is under attack and they must find cover. The stranger introduces himself as Uri and asks the narrator for his name; the narrator says he is called "Stopthief."
Uri leads him to a stable where several other boys are hiding. They ask him if he is a Jew; he shrugs his shoulders, unsure. He asks the boys what a Jew is and they tell him, "A Jew is an animal. A Jew is a bug. A Jew is less than a bug." The boys do not really believe this; they are merely spouting back the latest rhetoric. After all, they are Jews themselves. The group presses him further, suggesting that he is a Gypsy. Unsure what else to say, he assents. One of the boys suggests that they send him away because "next to Jews, they hate Gypsies the most." The boys proceed to joke around about why Jews are being targeted; they know that people think Jews drink people's blood and eat babies. They find these accusations utterly absurd since they are beyond what even fiction writers could conjure up. As the bombings worsen, the boys run for better shelter. They lead their new group member to an abandoned barbershop where they find safety for the night. It becomes evident that Uri is the group's de facto leader and has assumed the role of guardian. Uri procures a mattress for the boy and then gives him a bath and cuts his hair to delouse him.
Later that fall, the bombings become more frequent and food becomes more scarce. For the first time, the boy comes face to face with the Jackboots. He is mesmerized by their uniforms and the sheer number of them. He finds their marching to be a grand spectacle and cannot understand why no one else is delighted by their arrival. A few days later, however, he begins to understand. There are drastic changes in the town. He sees an elderly man washing the street with his long beard. Next, he sees the soldiers cutting off another man's beard. At first, he tells Uri that he wants to be a Jackboot. Uri becomes angry and tells him "you are what you are," meaning that he will never be a Jackboot. Uri seems to know that the boy has no idea what is really going on and as a result, he tries to shield the boy from their reality.
Uri decides that the boy needs a name and so Uri names him Misha Pilsudski. Uri also crafts an identity for him. Misha Pilsudski is a Gypsy of Russian descent. His father was a horse trader (his favorite was named Greta). Misha has seven brothers and five sisters. They ended up in Poland where he was separated from the rest of his family after a Jackboot bombing. Misha found his way to Warsaw and learned how to steal food as a means of survival. Misha is so thrilled to have an identity that he repeats his new name over and over to himself. As the story progresses, Misha begins to truly embrace his identity. Each time he hears a horse, he looks to see if it is Greta, his favorite horse. When he learns that Uri and the other boys are orphans, he does not believe that he fits into that category since he has parents and twelve siblings.
Misha witnesses the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses in Warsaw. He thinks to himself, "I'm glad I'm not a Jew." Prophetically, Uri tells him not to be too glad....
(The entire section is 1520 words.)
Chapters 1-4 Summary
Chapter 1: "Memory"
The little boy's very first memory is of running. He is clutching a loaf of bread against his chest, and someone is chasing him, shouting, "Stop! Thief!" Sometimes it is a dream, and other times it is just a memory that comes in the middle of the day. The little boy never stops long enough to eat the bread.
Chapters 2-4: "Summer"
The boy remembers sirens screaming and "thumping noises, like distant thunder." He is being dragged along by a much bigger youth with red hair, who plunges him into a dark shelter. The bigger boy snatches the bread and breaks it in half, taking one part for himself. He says harshly, "You're lucky...soon it won't be ladies chasing you...it will be Jackboots." The little boy asks the bigger one what the thumping sounds in the distance are, and he learns that it is "Jackboot artillery; big guns...shelling the city." The little boy wonders what Jackboots are.
Impressed with his new friend's quickness and skill at stealing, the bigger boy introduces himself as Uri. The little one tells Uri that his name is Stopthief.
Uri takes Stopthief to meet a group of homeless urchins who live in a stable. Stopthief is amazed to see a tall pile of stolen goods in the corner of the room, a pile made up of all varieties of bread, sausages, fruits, and candies, as well as watches, combs, and furs with the thin, flat faces of foxes. The boys, who are eating and smoking, make fun of Stopthief because of his diminutive stature. Uri defends him, pointing out that Stopthief's tininess and agility are great assets in the life that they all live. One of the boys, who is smoking, asks Stopthief how old he is, but the little one does not know. The smoker then asks if he is a Jew, and is astounded when Stopthief replies, "What's a Jew?" A boy with a particularly dour demeanor answers, "A Jew is an animal...a Jew is a bug...a Jew is...
(The entire section is 741 words.)
Chapters 5-8 Summary
Chapters 5-8: "Autumn"
During the bombardment, sirens scream every day. Uri and Stopthief go outside only at night to see the city on fire beyond the rooftops. One day, the sirens are finally silent, and Uri takes Stopthief out into the street. Twisted skeletons of streetcars and the shattered remains of buildings dot the landscape. People are everywhere, all heading in the same direction. One person starts running, and Stopthief, thinking delightedly that it must be a race, streaks after him.
Breaking through the mob, Stopthief is struck on the ear and falls to the ground. When he looks up, he is faced with lines and lines of "the tallest, blackest, shiniest boots [he has] ever seen." Knowing instinctively that these are the Jackboots Uri has spoken about, Stopthief watches in awe. One of the soldiers looks down at him and amiably calls him a "tiny little Jew," but Stopthief corrects him, saying, "I'm not a Jew...I'm a Gypsy." Uri finally catches up with Stopthief, and the little boy notices that his friend is not cheering the grand parade. The crowd, too, is somber, and someone throws out a single white flower, which bounces from one of the Jackboot tanks and breaks into petals.
The next morning, the world outside is changed. The Jackboots distribute bread among the people, but also seem to go out of their way to torment men with beards who wear long coats. One of these sad individuals is forced to clean the sidewalk with his beard, while another is crudely shorn of his hair right out on the street. When Stopthief, still impressed with the majesty of the soldiers, declares that he wants to be a Jackboot, Uri smacks him in the face. That night, as he reflects upon what he has seen, it suddenly occurs to Stopthief that the bearded men who are being victimized in the city are Jews.
The days immediately following the coming of the Jackboots are "good times" for the street children....
(The entire section is 798 words.)
Chapters 9-11 Summary
Chapters 9-11: "Winter"
One night, there is the sound of shouting and glass smashing above the basement room. Uri and Misha barely have time to escape with their coats and shoes. From that day on, the two boys move constantly from one place to another; never again will they know together the security and stability they have found in their barbershop basement refuge.
Uri has taught Misha to steal only as much as he needs, but when a bread lady from whom he is pilfering calls him a "dirty Jew," the little boy reacts with anger. That day, Misha snatches five loaves instead of the required one. Uri tells Misha that he is wasting and takes the extra bread to a local orphanage run by a kind...
(The entire section is 762 words.)
Chapters 12-14 Summary
Chapters 12-14: "Winter" (continued)
Misha continues to bring the coals he has scavenged to both the orphanage and to Janina's house. After a while, the gifts that Janina is in the habit of leaving for him on her back porch cease to appear. Worried, Misha impetuously knocks on the door on one occasion, hoping to see the little girl, but to his surprise, a Jackboot holding a stein of beer answers. The Jackboot asks Misha if he is a Jew, and Misha asserts that he is not; he is a Gypsy. The Jackboot slaps Misha and pours the contents of his stein over the boy's head. In retaliation, Misha pounds the insolent soldier's foot hard with the sack of coal he has brought and runs for his life.
(The entire section is 671 words.)
Chapters 15-17 Summary
Chapters 15-17: "Autumn"
The Jews of Warsaw are confined to a ghetto the following autumn. Misha watches as a horde of solemn victims wearing white armbands with blue stars pass by in unearthly silence, while behind them, there is cheering and the sound of breaking glass. As the Jews leave their homes, other citizens rush in greedily to claim their abandoned dwellings. Unaware of the seriousness of the situation, Misha joins the melancholy throng. He tries to strike up a conversation with some of the exiles, but they are afraid of him because he wears no armband, and thus must not be a Jew.
Marching with the crowd, Misha sees the orphans, who are singing under Doctor Korczak's direction...
(The entire section is 759 words.)
Chapters 18-21 Summary
Chapters 18-21: "Winter"
Uri returns to the homeless band on the first morning of their confinement in the ghetto, but from then on, he comes even less frequently than before. When Misha asks if he goes to the other side, Uri tells him brusquely, "Don't ask." It is winter again, and the weather is frigid. One cold day, Misha sees a boy lying out in the middle of the street. He comments to Uri about the boy's stupidity in choosing such an inappropriate sleeping place, but Uri tells him that the boy is dead. The body is covered with newspaper, like a blanket, and the people on the street just walk around it, pretending not to notice. Each day, there are new bodies lying in the street, but by...
(The entire section is 712 words.)
Chapters 22-24 Summary
Chapters 22-24: "Spring"
By defying Uncle Shepsel and accepting Misha into the family, Mr. Milgrom gives the young boy a new identity. Deep down, Misha has always known that the tale of his Gypsy background, as bestowed upon him by Uri, is only a fantasy. Misha Pilsudski is now Misha Milgrom, and the only evidence of his past life is the yellow stone he still wears around his neck. Something deep within him tells Misha that this is the one part of Uri's story that is true: the yellow stone had been given to him by his father.
Although he sleeps at the Milgrom's apartment on occasion, Misha still spends most of his time with the band of homeless boys. Every night, they are all involved...
(The entire section is 719 words.)
Chapters 25-27 Summary
Chapters 25-27: "Summer"
The long months of deprivation in the ghetto have taken their toll on Janina. She no longer wears bows in her hair or socks on her feet, and her shoes are muddy scraps. Janina cries a lot and is prone to fits of temper. She frequently demands unreasonably that her mother make her favorite food, pickled eggs, but Mrs. Milgrom remains unresponsive on the mattress, facing the wall.
On their nightly forays out of the ghetto to search for food and smuggle it back in from the other side, Misha simply squeezes through the two-brick-wide hole in the wall, but the other boys must find alternate means of escape. Kuba uses thick coats to cover the barbed wire atop the...
(The entire section is 766 words.)
Chapters 28-30 Summary
Chapters 28-30: "Summer" (continued)
Misha continues to go through the wall every night, pilfering food for both the orphanage and his family. Although he never acknowledges her, Janina accompanies him. She follows him everywhere. The two children continue to raid the Jackboot hotel, as well as some of the finest houses in Warsaw. One night, a little boy who lives in one of these houses accosts them, and the three children spend amiable hours sitting around a table, snacking on pickled herring, sugar cookies, and milk. The boy cries when Misha and Janina leave, and they console him by promising to return, but Misha knows they never will.
Mr. Milgrom does not discover that Janina is smuggling...
(The entire section is 788 words.)
Chapters 31-34 Summary
Chapters 31-34: "Winter"
On one of his visits to the Jackboot hotel, Misha is surprised to see Uri, dressed in fine clothes and busily emptying ashtrays into a trash can in the lobby. He calls out to his friend, but Uri does not respond. A short time later, Misha is snatched in one of the hallways and hustled into a dark room. Uri angrily tells the boy that he has a job in the hotel laundry and that Misha should never come to see him at the establishment again. Uri then flings Misha unceremoniously out of the room and closes the door.
Outside, as he makes his rounds, Misha is surprised that Janina, for once, is nowhere to be seen. When he slips back into the ghetto, he finally...
(The entire section is 766 words.)
Chapters 35-39 Summary
Chapters 35-36: "Spring"
In the spring, starving orphans appear in the courtyard, singing for food, but no one has anything to give them. Wagons filled with bodies are lined up at the gate of the cemetery, while the piper continues to march in the street, calling to the children, "Come to the candy mountain." Every chance she gets, Janina plays the dangerous game of harassing Buffo and the other Flops. Misha can do nothing to stop her, and he often goes off by himself, closing his eyes and dreaming of the past, when there was food everywhere for the taking.
One day, Uri comes to Misha with a warning, telling him to get out of the ghetto at all costs. Uri, who is dressed smartly, says...
(The entire section is 749 words.)
Chapters 40-45 Summary
Chapters 40-44: "Then"
When Misha awakens, his head is ringing, and he finds himself lying in a ditch in a puddle of water. There is a gash on his arm where the dog had grabbed him, and his ear is a "crusty lump." As he looks around, he realizes that the trains are gone; the Stawki Station is empty. Plagued by dizziness and slipping in and out of consciousness, Misha makes his way down the tracks, staggering and falling repeatedly. After a while, he encounters a young boy, who gives him some water, and asks where he is going. Misha pulls out his soiled armband with the blue star upon it and replies that he is "going to the ovens...where Janina is."
Misha wanders onward in a daze, eating...
(The entire section is 792 words.)