My nine a.m. fifteen-minute phone interview with Jodi Picoult was a bright morning flash of energy as her enthusiasm shone through the line. We discussed The Storyteller, her twenty-second book, which she says is about the evils that people can do. Having read and reviewed many books about the Holocaust, I would certainly classify this as such, though Picoult says it would be limiting to call it Holocaust fiction.
Raised on Long Island, Picoult claims to be agnostic, having had a warm, loving but not particularly Jewish home, though both her parents are Jewish. The only Holocaust book she remembers reading was Elie Wiesel’s Night during high school. She was later affected strongly by Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Sunflower, then re-read it when she started thinking of writing The Storyteller. Wiesenthal was a concentration camp inmate when he was sent to the bedside of Karl, a dying Nazi soldier who wanted to be forgiven by a Jew for his horrible deeds. Picoult says tons of philosophical commentary has been written about the profound moral question of whether a survivor can give forgiveness in the place of one who no longer can.
Picoult, whose family had distant relatives in concentration camps, is “flabbergasted” by people who can take the facts and have the “chutzpa” to deny Holocaust history. She recently heard about the Newtown shooting being called a hoax and wonders how “anyone can look those parents in the eye” and say it never happened.
The Storyteller has four parallel stories. Sage is a brilliant baker who works at night, living a limited lonely life in a small town. She keeps a scar on her face hidden, is involved in a hopeless romantic affair, and is drawn to Josef, a beloved neighborhood old timer who frequents the bakery. Minka grows up in Lodz and is forced into the ghetto with her family. Eventually she is sent on a transport to Auschwitz and we closely follow the impossible hardships she endures and ultimately survives. Franz and Reiner are two German brothers different as can be; one a serious sensitive student, the other a fighter; both end up in the SS. Meanwhile we read Minka’s fiction, chapters of a dark Gothic romance about a baker’s daughter and two demon brothers who terrorize a village.
Minka’s biography is compiled from multiple survivors, including various threads from Mania Salinger’s own memoir, Looking Back. Picoult says Mania reminds her of her own grandma. Salinger was eager to read The Storyteller as it was being written. She flew through the first section, but had to stop when it got to Auschwitz because it was too real. Picoult called that “heartbreaking praise.”
The descriptions of the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz are as horribly detailed and disturbing as any I’ve read in other Holocaust books. A unique scene stands out in The Storyteller of a bride still wearing her white lace bridal dress arriving on a transport to Auschwitz, desperately looking for her family from whom she was separated. Though I found it to be emotionally devastating, Picoult has her character Minka see this as a sign of hope that “normal” Jewish life is still happening outside the concentration camp.
Picoult says she doesn’t feel it’s her responsibility to write about the Holocaust; she thinks this book may have more impact coming from her as an outsider, rather than from a more typical Jewish writer. Her large fan base will read this because she wrote it, not because they’re specifically seeking a book about this tragic period.
I questioned Picoult’s non-traditional treatment of Minka’s funeral. She told me about her own grandfather, a confirmed atheist who died recently at age 101. He wished to be cremated, while her grandmother, who is turning 100 sat shiva for him. She calls this an odd mix of culture and doctrine, and is how Sage and her sisters’ lives are portrayed.
Thankfully there are some lighter touches in the novel. Picoult “loves the voice of Leo Stein,” the Department of Justice Nazi hunter, who is totally driven by his selfless career, but has a sense of humor which offsets Sage’s mostly grim mood. I enjoyed Rocco, who works with Sage in the bakery and speaks only in haiku, a strange but welcome amusement in this story.
I had mixed feelings about the prolific Picoult, who presents varied deeply sensitive topics, delving into writing about the Holocaust. However, after learning about her serious research into primary sources, hearing about her close connection to Mania Salinger, a survivor who approved the book, and immersing myself in her heart-wrenching descriptions of life in the ghetto and concentration camps, I humbly relent. I pray that this bestselling author succeeds in reaching untapped audiences who will become educated and changed by The Storyteller.
1. Sage has been a part of the grief group for three years. Why has she stayed?
2. The paradox of loss: How can something that’s gone weigh us down so much? (p.11) Discuss.
3. When Sage’s father died, Sage “dropped out” of college. What dramatic action did her mother take to ensure that Sage finished school?
4. How do Rocco’s and Mary’s characters tell you more about Sage?
5. Obviously baking is more than a job to Sage (p.19) Do you have a job that transforms you as baking does for Sage?
6. How does Mary describe Josef Weber? (p.20 – 21)
7. How did Sage and Adam meet? Why was Sage so willing to take up with a married man?
8. How “religious” is Sage’s family? Does this matter, given what happens to her?
9. “Sharing a memory with someone is different from reliving it when you are alone.” (p.41) Discuss.
10. How do Mary, Sage, Rocco, and Josef react to the image of God in the loaf of bread? How do you think you would react?
11. What request does Josef make of Sage? What do you think you would do?
12. The periodic pages in italics are a continuing story — a Gothic fairy tale. In what ways does it parallel the present day story? The one in Minka’s narrative? In what way does this frame story-within-a-story add to the moral dilemma Sage faces?
13. Why does Sage go to the police station? Would you do the same? Why or why not?
14. When Jews were being taken by the Nazis, many Germans turned a blind eye. How easy would that be to do?
15. Grandma Minka and her father were also bakers. How important are the family recipes? The baking of special breads? Is baking a metaphor for something else in this book?
16. “If my grandmother could reinvent herself, why not Joseph Weber?” (p. 67) Have you ever had the opportunity/desire to reinvent yourself? Did it work/help?
17. What is Leo Stein’s job at the Justice Department? Why is Sage’s phone call to him so unusual?
18. Leo has a passion for his job as a Nazi hunter. Why does he think it’s important?
19. “If you hide long enough, a ghost among men, you might disappear forever without anyone noticing. It’s human nature to ensure that someone has seen the mark left behind.” (p. 98) Discuss.
20. Does Josef have the right to ask Sage to forgive him? Why or why not?
21. Josef tells his background of growing up in Germany as Hitler was rising to power. His explanation makes it easy to see and understand how a person could be influenced by the propaganda. (p.114) Discuss.
22. Joseph explains how you can develop brutality. (P. 120) Discuss his explanation in terms of bullying today.
23. Sage wonders “my grandmother, had she been one of those who walk toward the gun? Was it a mark of weakness, or of courage?” (p.124) Discuss.
24. Josef compares the Nazi beliefs to organized religion. How is it the same? How is it different? (p. 139) Discuss.
25. Josef/Reiner’s brother, Franz, says “Power isn’t doing something terrible to someone who’s weaker than you. It’s having the strength to do something terrible and choosing not to.” (p. 146) In what ways does this reflect upon the actions of Reiner? Franz? Sage?
26. What does the meeting of Leo and Sage tell us about Leo’s personality?
27. “So everyone from the guards to the bean counters at Auschwitz is culpable for what happened there, simply because they were aware of what was going on inside it’s fences, and performed their duties.” (p. 178) Do you agree? Disagree? Discuss.
28. “Morality has nothing to do with religion” she says. “You can do the right thing and not believe in God at all.” (p. 187) Do you agree?
29. Who is the author of the fairy tale? What purpose has it served for her?
30. What kind of home life did Minka have as a girl? How was it changing? (p. 199)
31. What happens while Minka and Josek are having coffee at the Astoria Café? How does that change Minka’s life forever?
32. What is the importance of having Christian papers? If you were Minka, would you have used them?
33. What does Rubin do to save his son? What does Basia do to save Rubin? How have their circumstances changed their actions?
34. What is Herr Fassbinder’s intention in demanding more workers, especially mothers and children? Do you believe that he should be lauded for his actions, or condemned for not doing more?
35. Minka and her family learn the fate of her mother. Why is it so unbelievable to them?
36. What happens to Majer when he and Basia are hiding in the cellar? What does Basia do?
37. Why does Minka want to be with Aron?
38. If you had to pack your whole life in one suitcase, what would you take?
39. While working in Kanada, going through luggage, Minka comes across her father’s suitcase. What does she do with her father’s sweater? Why is this a pivotal moment?
40. Why does Minka start stealing photographs? What does she end up using them for?
41. What happens when the officer realizes Minka is fluent in German and has written a
42. fairy tale?
43. What purpose does the fairy tale serve for the Hauptscharfuhrur? How has the fairy tale evolved from when Minka first wrote it until the time she is writing for the Hauptscharfuhrur?
44. “There was no black and white. Someone who had been good her entire life could, in fact, do something evil. Ania was just as capable of committing murder, under the right circumstances, as any monster.” Discuss.
45. When Minka and Darija see the bride, dressed in white, it gave them hope. Why?
46. Minka helps the Hauptscharfuhrur by telling him about his brother fighting. Why does she risk doing this?
47. The Hauptscharfuhrur reads Minka’s fairy tale and notes “Fascinating, to think of violence being just as intimate as love.” Discuss.
48. How does the Hauptscharfuhrur save Minke’s life? (p. 334) Why do you think he does that?
49. “If you knew you were going to die, wasn’t it better to choose the time and place, instead of waiting for fate to drop on you like an anvil? (p. 335) Discuss.
50. “Sometimes all it takes to become human again is someone who can see you that way, no matter how you present on the surface.” (p. 352) Discuss.
51. “So you see, this is why I never told my story. If you lived through it, you already know there are no words that will ever come close to describing it. And if you didn’t, you will never understand.” (359) Discuss.
52. When Leo and Sage are in the temple, Leo watches the crowd and says, “This is why I do what I do.” What does Leo mean? (p. 376)
53. “Forgiving isn’t something you do for someone else. It’s something you do for yourself.” (p. 453) Discuss.
54. What do you think Josef really wants to be forgiven for?
55. Would you have forgiven Josef? Why do you think Josef lied?
56. As she often does, the author has a double meaning for the title. The storyteller could be several people and mean different things. Discuss.
57. There are groups that say the Holocaust never happened. As we get farther and farther away from World War II, fewer people are alive who would remember. Why is this story still relevant?