The main protagonist in Jerry Spinelli’s young adult novel Milkweed is a young Polish boy orphaned during World War II. The German invasion of Poland has thrown that country into chaos, with German occupiers systematically rounding up Warsaw’s Jewish population and placing them in a fenced-in part of the city that will become the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. The boy knows nothing of himself, and falls in with a group of Jewish orphans, the leader of whom calls the boy “Misha,” a common Slavic name. What follows in Spinelli’s novel comprises the main themes of Milkweed: “Misha’s” search for his true identity and his need to belong. He is a blank slate, and is quick to associate himself with any group that appears to be in control of its surroundings and that accepts him into its ranks. That need to belong extends even to the Nazis who occupy his country and force the Jews to live in a ghetto while wearing yellow armbands indicating their religion. When “Misha” declares “I want to be a Jackboot (German soldier) someday,” his innocence and lack of identity is painfully clear. He may be Jewish, he may not be; he is identified by the Nazis as such, and so his identity becomes one of a faith to which he may not belong. As the story progresses, the young boy assumes whatever identity seems right at that moment. During his time with Gypsies – another persecuted group – he assumes their identity, relinquishing it when he and they part ways. So ephemeral are his identities, that he easily casts them off, along with the human attachments that provided a temporary sense of community or family. Upon separating from the Gypsies, to whom his friend Uri had suggested he belonged, the story’s narrator, the young boy well into the future, notes that “when you own nothing, it’s easy to let things go.”
Milkweed, of course, is a plant, its scientific name, Asclepius, comes from the ancient Greek god of healing. This plant, however, has numerous – well over 100 – species, which serves as a metaphor for Spinelli’s protagonist who, as an adult living in the United States, grows milkweed plants, which attract monarch butterflies. The milkweed’s numerous species represent the boy’s multitude of identities. The search for his true identity, and his need to belong, are the novel’s main themes.