Synopsis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324

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...

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1520

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. What Uri understands that Misha does not is that Jews and Gypsies alike are all in extreme danger. Soon, there is no food to be bought or stolen and people begin to run out of coal to heat their homes. Nevertheless, Uri tries to find coal for the orphans in the care of Dr. Korczak, a real-life physician who makes a guest appearance in the novel.

Misha encounters a seven-year-old girl named Janina. They begin to exchange items on the steps to her house. He steals bread for her and her family, and in return, she leaves him little trinkets like hair bows and glass beads. Misha is upset when he goes to the door of her house one day and she and her family are no longer there; their home had been repossessed by a Jackboot.

One day, the Jackboots lead a parade of Jews through Warsaw into the ghetto. Misha joins the parade and along the way finds Dr. Korczak. He asks him if the ghetto is wonderful, to which the doctor replies, "We will make it wonderful." Among those in the parade as well are Janina and her family. Misha joins them, not wanting to separate from Janina even though he is not a Jew and, therefore, is not required to live in the ghetto. Upon seeing their new living quarters, Janina's Uncle Shepsel declares it "a closet." Soon, the ghetto is sealed with a wall that is topped with broken glass and barbed wire.

The conditions in the ghetto worsen. People begin to sell off their possessions and resort to eating squirrel and pigeon. Misha, however, is small enough to escape to the other side of the wall and to the outside world. This allows him to continue stealing food for Janina and her family. After a while, Janina's father declares that Misha is part of their family.

Himmler comes to see the ghetto himself, which causes a great deal of tension among the residents. While everyone is terrified of him and what he represents (he was, after all, "the number two Jackboot!"), Misha sees him for what he really is: "a one-eyed chicken" who looked like Uncle Shepsel and was not magnificent at all. After this encounter, the Jackboots were no longer mystical to Misha, and he decided that he no longer wanted to be one.

Death takes many lives in the ghetto, and Misha learns that another way to survive is by stealing clothes from the dead. Though he gives pause when one of the victims is a friend, he nevertheless puts his survival first. To increase their chances of survival, Janina joins Misha in stealing as much food as they possibly can. Despite their efforts, Janina's mother, Mrs. Milgrom, dies in the ghetto. Her body was placed in a cart and taken out of the ghetto. Days later, the ghetto is bombed by the Russians.

Misha learns about the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and celebrates with Janina and her father. He instructs Misha that "we must be happy now. We must never forget how to be happy." In an effort to make his surrogate family happy, Misha steals items to present to Janina and her father as Hanukkah gifts. Best of all, Misha finds a hard-boiled egg for Janina, her favorite food.

The tone changes dramatically when Uri tells Misha that everyone in the ghetto is about to be deported; Uri warns him that he needs to run away. When Misha tells his family that they will be taken away on trains, they do not believe him. Uncle Shepsel says, "there is nothing else they can do to us." When the Jackboots began clearing out the ghetto street by street, the residents truly believed that they were going to be resettled in the east where they would be free. Ultimately, Janina, her father, Uncle Shepsel, and Dr. Korczak and the orphans are gone and somehow Misha remains. He is upset that he was forgotten by the Jackboots and tries to turn himself in on several occasions.

For three years following the end of the war, Misha lives and works on a farm. Eventually, he makes his way back to Warsaw and returns to the ghetto, which has been reduced to a pile of rubble. Slowly, Misha assimilates to society where he "learned about forks and money and toothpaste and toilets." He migrates to the United States where he becomes Jack Milgrom, so named by an immigration official. He learns English and becomes a salesman. He marries a woman named Vivian who had his child after she left him. Later, his daughter, Katherine, finds him and introduces him to his granddaughter, Wendy. He learns that Katherine has saved Wendy's middle name for him to choose. Without a moment's hesitation, he says, "Janina." After getting to know his real family, he gains his true name and identity, "Poppynoodle," a term of endearment given to him by Wendy Janina.

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