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Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Best-selling author tackles Holocaust

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Jodi Picoult

Best-selling author Jodi Picoult takes on the Holocaust and its heavy topics of forgiveness and evil in her new novel, The Storyteller (Atria).

At the heart of this novel is Sage, a 25-year-old single woman who lives in Westerbrook, a small town in New Hampshire.

As the result of a car accident, Sage has a very bad scar that runs down her face from her eyebrow to her cheek. Because of this, she is sensitive and introverted, isolating herself by working the late shift at The Daily Bread, a bakery run by a former nun. She believes she has the face of a monster.

Sage’s parents are both dead. Her mother died only a few years ago, and for some reason that we don’t find out until much later, Sage feels very guilty about it. After her mother’s funeral, Sage begins a guilt-ridden affair with the funeral director, Adam, who is married.

Sage attends grief counselling, and it is there that she meets the recently widowed Josef Weber, a nice man in his 90s whom she recognizes as a regular morning customer at the bakery.

They soon become friends. Weber, a former teacher, is a regular churchgoer and choir singer who led the 4th of July parade as senior of the year. He is described by the townspeople as “close as you can get to being canonized while you’re still alive… everyone’s adoptive, cuddly grandfather.”

One day Weber shocks Sage by asking her to help him die. “It’s what I deserve,” he says. She tells him she doesn’t want to help him commit suicide, that she is not a murderer.

But, he says, he is one. He then reveals his big secret. He says he was a member of the Waffen SS, responsible for the mass killings of Jews and other civilians. He wants to seek atonement, he says, and wants one other favour from her: he wants her to forgive him for his sins.

Sage is Jewish, although she doesn’t consider herself a Jew.  Her parents never kept kosher or went to services. To her it seemed as though they followed an abridged version of Judaism.

Sage is shocked and confused by Weber’s confession. Can you blame the Nazi who was born into an antisemitic country and given an antisemitic education if he turns out to be a monster? Yes, she believes, yes you can.

For there is one other twist in this multi-storied novel: her paternal grandmother, Minka, is an Auschwitz survivor.

Sage was 12 when she found this out. Her grandmother never talked about it. Sage has a vague memory of seeing the blurry tattoo on her arm and her grandmother explaining that it was her phone number, so that she wouldn’t forget it.

As far as her grandmother is concerned, her life began when she moved to America. What happened to her during the war happened to a different person.

Minka is the storyteller of the book’s title. As a girl, she started writing a supernatural story about an upior, a sort of Polish vampire, which is also a story about ordinary men who turn out to be monsters.  Picoult is not subtle in her use of allegories and symbolism. The story Minka began ultimately saves her life.

Sage finally convinces Minka to relate her wartime experiences. Minka tells her about her time growing up near Lodz, Poland, and how they were rounded up and sent to the ghetto.

Minka’s history takes up the middle of this novel, and is by far the best part. Some of it we’ve heard elsewhere before – the liquidation of the ghetto, the transportation to Auschwitz.

But Picoult (who is Jewish) spins it into an enthralling and original tale. In the ghetto, Minka’s knowledge of German allowed her to work as a secretary in a textile factory run by a Schindler-like character named Fassbinder, who rescues mothers and children by employing them in his factory. At Auschwitz, she works at Kanada, the part of the camp where clothes and personal belongings are sorted. In order to distract her bunkmates from the pain and anguish at Auschwitz, Minka begins to tell them the story she created about the upior. She also decides to write the story down for posterity using the backs of photographs she pilfers from the inmates’ suitcases at Kanada.

But she is caught by one of the senior SS officers who reads the story and is intrigued enough by it to find out how it ends. He makes her his secretary and forces her to write 10 pages of her story every day in a journal that he gives her. (He confiscates the photographs).

Minka knows she has nothing to lose. As long as she keeps writing her story, she knows, like Scheherazade of 1001 Nights, the officer will keep her alive.

Inevitably, and somewhat obviously, Sage’s grandmother’s life and the life of Weber run parallel to each other.

Sage’s biggest dilemma is whether to do as Weber says, forgive him and help him die, or betray him to authorities.

She is reminded that in Judaism, murderers cannot be forgiven, because the victim is dead and only those who’ve been wronged can forgive.

The duality of evil, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde aspect, is one of the major themes of this book. “Inside each of us is a monster, inside each of us is a saint,” Weber tells her.

The other big theme is forgiveness. Can we forgive people for what they did to others? Can one atone for heinous acts?

Picoult says this novel was initially inspired by Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. Despite some over-the-top symbolism and several distracting side plots including a love triangle, this is a thrilling read, although some parts are better than others. Minka’s harrowing Holocaust account alone is well worth the price of admission.

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