20 October, 2021

LitStack Review: The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

The StorytellerThe Storyteller
Jodi Picoult
Emily Bestler Books
First Edition: February 26, 2013
ISBN 978-1-4391-0276-3

What is the point of trying to put down on paper emotions that are too complex, too huge, too overwhelming to be confined by an alphabet?

Love isn’t the only word that fails.

Hate does, too.

Love.  Hate.  Life.  Death.  Survival.  Forgiveness.  These are pretty heady topics; any one of them could fill volumes.  That Jodi Picoult could wrestle with all of them in one novel is ambitious – that she immerses us in a wrenching, personal story that deftly touches on each is a gift.

Sage Singer is young and Jewish, and she is a baker.  She bakes because her father was a baker, and his grandfather before him – baking is in her blood.  But Sage also is a baker because she seeks out solitude and distraction; even three years later she grieves the loss of her mother, and the silvery scar on her face (“a starfish puckered across my left eyelid and cheek”) has convinced her that she is a freak, with the face of a monster.  She’s wrong, but it’s easier to hide behind the scar – and the solitary, late night hours that accompany baking – than it is to confront her fears.

Then one day, at her grief counseling group, she meets Josef Weber, an 90-something year old widower who she recognizes as an occasional customer at the bakery where she works; he comes in with his little dog, and writes in a leather bound notebook.  They strike up an unlikely friendship as he becomes a regular at the bakery – him at the end of his day, she at the start of hers.  But after a time Josef shares a secret he has held onto tightly for decades, one that he never even told his wife during their 52 year marriage: that in WWII he was a Nazi officer, SS-Totenkopfverbände, the Death’s Head Formation – the guards at the concentration camps.  From 1942 until its liberation in 1945, he was assigned to Auschwitz.  Sixty-two years later, he seeks out Sage because she is one of the few Jews in the New Hampshire neighborhood he has lived in, taught in, worshiped in, umpired at for 22 years, where he has been admired, honored, called a saint, smiled at without anyone knowing what lurks in his past.  It doesn’t matter that Sage doesn’t consider herself a Jew, that she doesn’t even believe in God, that she knows little of the Holocaust; he has sought her out to ask a favor – that she help him die.

Yet while this is the drama that sets the stage in The Storyteller, there are many additional stories within the story that emerge as our understanding of the stakes and ramifications of Josef’s past life grows.  These stories are told firsthand from many additional points of view – Sage’s and Josef’s, yes, but also Leo Stein, an agent of the Department of Justice’s Office of Human Rights and Special Prosecutions (the agency responsible for tracking down Nazi war criminals on American soil), the narrative of a modern folk tale set in Poland full of struggle and demands and love – and upiór, the Polish version of the vampire folk, and finally, Sage’s grandmother, Minka, who as a young woman was the author of the folk tale.  Minka is a Holocaust survivor, but had kept her memories so tightly wrapped up that Sage never knew her grandmother had been touched by the war until she was 12, and even then she had no idea of what the rarely glimpsed tattoo on her grandmother’s forearm really meant.

The night my mother told me about my grandmother’s history, I dreamed of a moment I hadn’t remembered, from when I was very tiny.  I was sitting on Grandma Minka’s lap while she turned the pages of a book and read me the story.  I realize now that it wasn’t the right story at all.  The picture book was of Cinderella, but she must have been thinking of something else, because her tale was about a dark forest and monsters, a trail of oats and grain.

I also recall that I wasn’t paying much attention, because I was mesmerized by the gold bangle bracelet on my grandmother’s wrist.  I kept reaching for it, pulling at her sweater.  At one point, the wool rode up just far enough for me to be distracted by the faded blue numbers on her inner forearm.  What’s that?

My telephone number.

I had memorized my telephone number the previous year in pre-school, so that if I got lost, the police could call home.

What if you move? I asked.

Oh, Sage, she laughed.  I’m here to stay.

It is so very hard, in our common, ordinary lives, to realize that the people around us who seem just as common and ordinary may harbor past experiences of their own that defy comfort and complacency.  Sage certainly feels that her life is messed up, with her guilt over past actions, her shame at her appearance, and her less than stellar activities (such as having a relationship with a married man), but when put on the back burner by the reluctantly revealed tale of her grandmother in Poland from the days leading up to the war to the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the realization comes that perhaps she does hold within herself more to cherish than she realized.

But juxtaposed against the horror and heartbreak of Minka’s tale is the tragic and enraging story of Josef’s descent from a carefree German boy in an ordinary middle class family to a heartless, ruthless concentration camp monster – and then back to beloved member of an unsuspecting community.  Josef’s story is no less horrific and no less enraging than Minka’s, but the anger flickers in many different directions – including back at the man, himself; he, too, may have been caught in an unbending maelstrom, but we are perhaps not yet willing to give him victim status.  Yet is it a story unflinchingly told, without deflection of responsibility; he does not want nor expect pity.  What he does yearn for, after all these years, is some level of understanding – and forgiveness.

In the end, can there be forgiveness?  For Josef and the atrocities he has committed, but also for Sage and the guilt she carries, for Minka and the secrets she’s held hidden away?  How much time must go by before we can let go of the past?  What is the capacity of the human spirit to overcome experiences that shatter our worlds to find solid ground again?  Is peace something we can give to those who have wronged us?  Should we?  Dare we?

So many stories, so different from each other and yet all bound up together, like key ingredients that are blended and kneaded in order to make the bread of life.  I knew when I requested The Storyteller from the library the week it was published and I already was the 1,035th name in queue that this must be an exceptional book.  That, with it taking from that week in February to the first week in July before I got the chance to read it, I surely, finally, was holding in my hands something special.  That for this book to spend weeks – months – on the New York Times Best Seller list, it was going to an experience that would make an indelible impression in my heart.

Yes, yes and yes.  The Storyteller transcends the horror, the despair, the hatred and the loss of one of the most horrific times in our history, and allows it to become personal.  It forces each of us to confront the question of just how far we need – we must – go if we had to rebuild our own broken lives, and if some requests asked of us – not in the heat of the moment, but once the moment is cold and gone – might be just too much to answer.  If, indeed, the very asking of the requests themselves would be too much to bear.

We then can turn our own eyes outwards to realize how many hidden lives must live with these questions, from one degree to another.  How many other survivors struggle each day to put their pasts behind them, and know in their heart of hearts that what has been done will never go away?  How many other storytellers live among us, whose words defy the weight and complexity of what they convey?

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