Milkweed, a novel written by Jerry Spinelli, is the story of a very young boy with no name and history, caught amidst the Holocaust era of World War II in Poland. He calls himself Stopthief because that is what he hears people shout after him. He lives in the streets of Warsaw stealing from rich people and food from the grocery and bakeries in order to survive. One day he befriends Uri, another young orphan, who gives him the name Misha Pilsudski and teaches him to believe that is a Gypsy instead of the Jew that he is, in order to save him from the German troopers they call Jackboots.
In the course of the story, Misha meets another friend in Janina Milgrom, a girl who lives in the house he usually steals from. Eventually, Misha becomes a friend of the entire Milgrom family. When the Milgroms are taken to the Jew ghettos, Misha goes with them, his small frame allowing him to slip through the holes in the wall and smuggle food for his friends. The story, told in flashback by the main character who is now an adult living in America, is a touching story of human resilience and survival against the harsh conditions of war, especially for the Jews during World War II.
Misha is an innocent character who does not realize the horror of Nazis marching on the streets, bombs exploding and people running in panic. He thinks everything going on around him is either a game or fun. It is an ironic moment, therefore, that Misha realizes, when those who are far older do not, that the trains are not taking the ghetto’s residents to a resettlement area but to their deaths.
Somehow, Misha’s naivete consoles the reader and focuses the attention away from the evil and depressing aspects of the story, although Spinelli describes them all unflinchingly that the novel becomes not just a fictional story but lessons in history about the shocking episode of Hitler’s Holocaust in the 1940’s. Nevertheless, one comes away from the reader remembering the touching story of a little boy whose gestures of kindness are directed by instinct more than by an understanding of what is happening around him. It gives one an optimistic feeling that in spite the most evil of wars, there are stories like Misha’s, hopeful and inspiring.