I’m not running. Can’t, actually, for two more months.
But running is a central part of Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed, a novel about a young orphan boy in 1939 Warsaw. The title of this review is actually the first sentence of the book. Misha has no family, no home, not even a name until Uri gives him one. In Uri’s vivid (and imaginary) story, Misha is a Gypsy, stolen from his family and his speckled mare, Greta.
Misha and Uri belong to a gang of homeless boys, who survive on the streets of Warsaw by stealing bread and pickles and avoiding the ubiquitous Jackboots. It’s an easy life, a fun life. Misha’s best friend is a small Jewish girl named Janina, whose family’s garden he once ransacked and now attempts to repay by leaving stolen presents at their door.
One day, the Jackboots round up the Jews of Warsaw and take them to the ghetto. Misha doesn’t know what a ghetto is, and he’s not a Jew. But he follows Janina and her family so he can continue to feed them. That’s all he knows how to do—take food, run, and give it to those he loves.
I was born into craziness. When the whole world turned crazy, I was ready for it. That’s how I survived.
I firmly believe that there’s really nothing better in literature than a good child narrator, and Jerry Spinelli is the master of these. Misha’s youth and naïveté is at once endearing (at Janina’s birthday, he runs away with the cake because he thinks they’re going to set it on fire) and heart-rending (he follows everyone to the ghetto because he thinks it’s a parade). He has good powers of observation but comes to confused or inaccurate conclusions about what he sees, making his voice remain childlike as he recounts the horrors around him.
By far my favorite parts of this book were Misha’s relationships with Janina and Uri. Despite the fact that all three characters are children, these relationships are extremely complex.
Uri essentially adopts Misha after they compete for a loaf of bread. He’s the first human contact that Misha can remember. Red-headed and stern, he’s the natural leader of their group of boys, perhaps because he sees himself as exempt from the Jackboots’ cruelty: “Who’s ever heard of a red-headed Jew?” Throughout the book, you can tell that Uri is constantly torn between conflicting instincts of self-preservation and protection of Misha, who constantly draws attention to himself through some misguided act. Of all the characters, adult and child, Uri has the best idea of Warsaw’s fate at the hands of the Jackboots. He is strict, often violent, with Misha, who just can’t seem to keep his head down or stop asking questions. But with the attitude of a much older person, Uri does not let his fear overrule his care for Misha.
Misha, in turn, adopts a similar attitude toward Janina, especially once they are trapped in the ghetto. Shouldering the responsibilities of caretaker and breadwinner, he risks his life every night to feed her family. He keeps Janina’s spirits up by playing games with her and bringing her special treats, and takes very seriously her father’s orders to “keep Janina safe.” Their relationship makes an interesting contrast to his with Uri: both Misha and Uri are protectors, but while Uri assumes the role of an all-knowing adult, explaining to Misha only what he feels is absolutely necessary, Misha’s protective duties toward Janina are limited by his understanding. He can protect Janina from the Jackboots and their clubs, but why must they keep away from the trains carrying the Jews away from the ghetto?
Jerry Spinelli, as usual, delivers a powerful, heart-renching story told by an unexpected voice. Milkweed is an incredible feat of narration, as well as a well-researched account of humanity in crisis. I highly recommend it.