Monday, October 26, 2015

The Storyteller - Guest Review

One of my dearest friends wrote this review for The Coffee Pot and I am honored to share it with my fellow readers. Her words gave me chills. Hope you enjoy!

15753740Sage Singer befriends an old man who's particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone's favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. 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 was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.

What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who's committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren't the party who was wronged? And most of all—if Sage even considers his request—is it murder, or justice?

*Contains Spoilers*

Very few books make me sob uncontrollably, laugh out loud, and question my own morals, all within a few hundred pages. Picoult writes a novel that cuts to the very core of humanity by forcing the reader to make an unimaginable choice.

“The Storyteller” by Jodi Picoult is about a girl named Sage Singer who is presented with an impossible decision. Sage is introverted to the extreme; she works a night shift as a baker, has very few friends, and spends as much time hiding herself from the world as she can. She blames herself for the death of her mother, and feels the rest of the world does too. She considers herself a lost cause, a loner. That is, until she meets a nice elderly man by the name of Josef who comes into her bakery, and later shows up at her support group. Josef is a beloved member of the community. He was a teacher at the local school, he coached football, and he is lovingly referred to as the town grandpa. Sage and Josef spend more and more time together, and she begins to open up to him about her loneliness and guilt. As they grow closer and closer, Josef tells Sage his darkest secret, and asks her for an unimaginable favor: he was a Nazi during World War II. He wants her to help him die, after she forgives him for his unforgivable actions. Sage’s family is Jewish, her grandmother is a holocaust survivor, and Josef feels she is as close as he can get to being forgiven for his sins.

Throughout the book, Sage struggles with the choice in front of her. Can she forgive him, when she was not a subject of his transgressions? Can she kill him for what he did? Would that be justice, or would it be giving him the easy way out? What would be the consequences (moral and otherwise) if she decides to grant him his wish? She calls in reinforcements at the Department of Justice, and begins gathering more information about him. This spurs a much needed love interest for Sage's character, which provides the only happy ending of the novel.

Josef begins telling his story about what it was like growing up in Germany, how it became an honor to learn how to be a good soldier and follow directions. Josef always felt second best; he was an average student whose brother excelled in school. But then he joined the SS Guard and quickly moved up the ranks. The overwhelming approval he received for being tough and following orders only fueled Josef's ego. His need to please his superiors quickly outweighed any morals he thought he had.  As he is ordered to do unspeakable things, he begins to drink away his actions. He knows what he is doing is wrong, but he feels he cannot stop. He stops thinking of Jews as people. He justifies what he is doing by telling himself he is only doing what he is told. Meanwhile, Picoult manages to keep the emotional attachment to Josef one of pity, even as he describes killing men, women, and children in cold blood. When Josef finishes telling his story, the reader is surprisingly not left with a feeling of hatred toward him. Instead, I almost felt… sorry for him. Sage, on the other hand, is appalled by what she hears.

To help make her choice, Sage approaches her grandmother, and then we begin to hear the other side of the story. Minka talks about growing up as a Jew in Poland, where she plays dress up with her best friend Darija and crushes on her teacher.  As the war progresses, she is forced to move to the ghetto where over a few years, most of her friends and family are killed or "deported", never to be heard from again. She is eventually sent on a train to Auschwitz, where she is forced to work and is nearly starved to death. Minka is a storyteller; she has been writing the same novel since she was a young teenager. The story changes as she gets older and experiences tragedies. In both a figurative and very literal sense, this novel she is writing is the reason Minka survives. By the end of her story, I was left in tears. Literally sobbing. The atrocities this woman endured are hard to imagine, yet Picoult writes them so that you experience every loss, every pain, and your heart breaks for this character.

Once Minka and Josef have both finished their stories, it is easy to figure out the stories are intertwined. Both the reader and Sage are now more conflicted than ever. Can Josef be forgiven for what he has done? The point is made that murder can never be forgiven, because the victim is not alive to grant forgiveness. Should Sage help him die? He is an elderly man, no longer a danger to anyone. He clearly feels guilt for his actions, as evidenced by his need to become a productive member of society. Can someone with a conscience murder thousands of innocent people? On the other hand, can someone without a conscience feel guilt and remorse?

As she struggles with the situation at hand, Sage receives advice from the few people close to her. She is told that forgiveness is not for the transgressor, it is for the person granting the forgiveness. In the end, Sage makes her choice.

What would you choose?

-Brooke, St. Louis

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