The Sto­ry­teller

Jodi Picoult
  • Review
By – February 25, 2013

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 Wiesels 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.

Dis­cus­sion Questions

Vis­it Jodi Picoult’s web­site for addi­tion­al book club resources

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?

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

Discussion Questions