Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Storyteller

A few weeks back, I mentioned that I was reading Jodi Picoult's The Storyteller. I described how it had inspired me to fill my kitchen with the heavenly scent of fresh-baked bread. If you have not yet read Picoult's latest novel, you may be thinking of it as a light-hearted piece about a bread baker who happens to be a storyteller. Not exactly.

I had heard next-to-nothing about the book before I started reading, and luckily the jacket description really didn't give too much away. I was thinking that The Storyteller would address the issue of the right to die, but I was not prepared for the multi-layered narrative that developed. Yes, assisted suicide does form the foundation of the basic story, but Picoult skillfully weaves several stories together while presenting themes of family, faith, forgiveness, and justice; not to mention, the cruelty of mankind - man versus man in the extreme - with the Holocaust story that occupies a majority of the novel. I couldn't help but be impressed with Picoult's research, in addition to her storytelling talents.

After a bit of a slow start (probably more on my part than that of the author's) I couldn't put the book down. Once the different plot lines became distinguishable and I could see how they related to one another, I was in a hurry to discover how it all would culminate.

Here is a synopsis of the book from the author's website:

Sage Singer is a baker, a loner, until she befriends an old man who's particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone's favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses—and then he confesses his darkest secret – he deserves to die because he had been a Nazi SS guard. And Sage's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. How do you react to evil living next door? Can someone who's committed truly heinous acts ever atone with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren't the party who was wronged? And, if Sage even considers the request, is it revenge…or justice?
Although it is graphic and disturbing, I agree with Picoult's belief that Holocaust literature is important because some stories need to be told, and someone must be the spokesperson for the six million who are not able to tell their stories.

An excellent children's book to accompany The Storyteller is the Ontario Library Association's (OLA) Silver Birch winner by Marsha  Forchuk Skrypuch, Making Bombs for Hitler (Scholastic 2012).

Nominated in the category for grades 4-6, Making Bombs for Hitler is a disturbing, but satisfying read. It tells the story of a young Ukrainian girl who is captured by the Nazis in the middle of World War II and forced to work in a munitions factory. As I often do, I recommend that young students share this reading with their parents. It is quite difficult to read, and almost impossible to believe the horror that some humans have inflicted upon others. Happily, it is almost just as impossible to believe the strength of the human spirit and the seemingly insurmountable odds that some have overcome.

Of course, I cannot discuss Holocaust historical fiction without mentioning the YA read by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). In fact, I think it is time for a reread of this modern classic that is narrated by Death. It is just so well-written! Death's voice is lyrical, haunting, compelling, and at times, comedic. It is a character-driven story that I believe is more suited for adult readers; although sophisticated teen readers (grades9+) will appreciate it. I think the coming-of-age aspect of the story is what has led to it's YA classification. Death ponders the question I often ask myself: " How could the human race be "so ugly and so glorious" at the same time?"

Each of these books is a testament to the power of words; the power of stories. Today's storytellers play such an important role in our world. It is for them to give voice to those whose voice we can no longer hear.

It's time to return to something lighter - like the bread that I was thinking about when I first started The Storyteller. If you are feeling inspired, as I was, to start kneading and proofing dough, you may be happy to know that Picoult provides recipes that her character Minka uses, on her author website. You can find them here.

Now, to find my copy of The Book Thief .......


  1. I agree these stories need to be told. We also can't forget the other victims, estimated at three million, that the Nazis killed - people with mental and/or physical disabilities, gypsies/Roma, gay people, Communists. Their stories are not often told in fiction for some reason, although Ken Follett does address the systematic murder of disabled Germans as well as the persecution and violence towards gay people who didn't fit the so-called "Aryan" ideal in his book "Winter of the World".

    Other examples of moving Holocaust literature suitable for youth might be Alicia: My Story by Alicia Appleman-Jurman (I read this when I was 10, I believe, maybe a little precocious, but certainly suitable for 12+), Katarina by Kathryn Winter, The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, Night by Elie Wiesel, and of course, the enduring classic - The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.


I would love to hear your story!