Synopsis

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

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.)