Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli is a difficult book to describe to someone who has never read it. Perhaps “haunting” is the most appropriate adjective.
This book follows the life of a young boy known as Misha, orphaned and living on the streets of Warsaw, Poland when World War II strikes. The story is told from Misha’s perspective, which is one of extraordinary innocence due to his parentless childhood. Though we are all somewhat familiar with the Holocaust and WWII, experiencing them from the new viewpoint of this child is particularly heart-breaking and profound. Many times, we readers are able to identify the events that are unfolding, while Misha himself does not understand them.
Most of us are extremely privileged to have never experienced homelessness, and to have never lived through war or genocide. There is a tendency to focus heavily on numbers and cold facts when describing atrocities such as these, and human realities can often be glossed over. It is much more difficult to empathise with numbers, and so we are left emotionally unable to fully comprehend the horror of these events. While we do care on a moral level, we aren’t always so affected on a personal level. That puts our society at risk of becoming dangerously indifferent to suffering and injustice.
What Milkweed does so beautifully is humanise this tragedy. The characters are raw, and even messy. We learn their hopes, fears, and beliefs, and see how they cope as their world is torn apart. As Spinelli notes in the foreword, “They are more than Jews and Holocausters and orphans. They are people”. That is the essence of this book. Through these characters, we are given an emotional stake in events that we may otherwise think happened long ago and far away, if we don’t have a real-life connection to them. Although this is a work of fiction, it’s not hard to see how it parallels the experiences of real people.
Though emotional and at times uncomfortable, I truly believe that everyone should read Milkweed. If it wasn’t difficult to read in places, it would not be doing its job. Is empathy something that can be taught? I’m not sure, but this book gets as close to being capable of it as any I’ve ever read.