Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Atria)
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A story is more than just a bunch of characters and scenes woven together. And a story is usually only as good as its storyteller. Jodi Picoult’s book, The Storyteller, is a good example of that. That the book is a work of fiction doesn’t take away anything from the harrowing tales of a horrific time.
What happens when a former SS officer meets the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor? Redemption is sought, and whether it will be given forms the plot of this book. Sage Singer works at a bakery and is a part of a grief group that she attends to deal with her mother’s death. At one of the meetings she befriends Josef Weber, a nonagenarian who is well known in town for being a model citizen. He has been a beloved German teacher, coached a local league team and is respected in the tight-knit community that is Westerbrook, New Hampshire. Josef has a rather macabre favor to ask of Sage – he wants her to help him die. He is revealed to be a former SS officer responsible for gruesome deaths of several Jews during WWII. Sage’s grandmother Minka is an Auschwitz survivor and what Josef wants is redemption – to be forgiven by a Jew.Sage seeks the help of Leo Stein from the Justice department, who is actively involved in tracking down war criminals. As the book traverses Minka’s and Josef’s journeys, Sage is faced with the moral question – should you forgive someone who has committed grave, unspeakable acts because he has sought atonement and been a “good” person for the remainder of his life?
There are four parallel stories told here – Sage’s life as a baker, Josef’s tale of his days in the SS, Minka’s story of her life in Auschwitz, and the make-believe world of Ania, a baker’s daughter and her romance with a demon. Leo Stein’s voice is fresh and light, and makes him immensely likeable.
The Characters –
A baker by profession, Sage battles her own internal demons as she sets out on this strange journey. After an accident that changes her life (and scars her face) she is extremely conscious about meeting people, and her only social encounters are at the grief group. Sage is close with her grandmother Minka whom she adores. She is also drawn to Josef who is a part of the grief group. Mary, who owns the bakery Sage works in, is a good friend and a huge moral support always. Josef Weber, the SS officer turned beloved German teacher is a nonagenarian who feels he has lived too long, as a punishment for what he has done during the war. Minka talks about her own life, after being silent about it for the better part of her years. She talks about her father who baked her a single special roll every day, her mother and sister and her best friend Darija who is sent to the same camp as her. We’re also presented with Minka’s fiction, a story of the tragic romance between a young girl and a demon that she continues to write through her time in the camp.
The verdict –
The description of incidents that take place in the Lodz and Auschwitz camps are all drawn from real experiences of survivors. The story deals with a simple question, and the storyteller has done a superb job.