(Goodreads): Sage 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?
How do I even begin to describe a book as powerful and devastating as The Storyteller? While I knew the basic premise, I had no idea what I was in for when I first started reading it.
At the outset, we meet Sage, a reclusive young woman bearing scars of a tragic accident that cost her her parents. Sage lives alone in a small town in New Hampshire, where she works nights — again, alone — baking a miraculous, marvelous assortment of breads for the small bakery that employs her. Baking is both Sage’s passion and an escape, providing her with distraction and a focus, as well as a good excuse to avoid almost everyone.
It’s silly to anthropomorphize bread, but I love the fact that it needs to sit quietly, to retreat from touch and noise and drama, in order to evolve.
I have to admit, I often feel that way myself.
Sage is forced out of her comfort zone only when she attends a grief support group, where she meets and befriends a newer member, Josef, a sweet old man in his 90s who seems to be just as lonely as Sage. Gradually, the two connect and begin to share bits and pieces of their lives, but Sage’s pleasure in the friendship grinds to a crashing halt when Josef confesses his Nazi past to Sage and asks her to help him die.
Sage is aware that her beloved grandmother Minka is a Holocaust survivor, and remembers catching a brief glimpse of the tattoo on her arm. But Minka has never said a word about her experiences and refuses to answer questions. Sage doesn’t know where to turn. Josef is a well-respected member of the community, a man known as an excellent teacher, kind to all, a man who always did his best to help the town. How can he be a Nazi? In desperation and disgust, Sage tries to connect with law enforcement, and is finally directed to the Federal agency which investigates alleged war criminals, where an agent named Leo Stein takes Sage’s call. Leo encourages Sage to get more information. It’s not enough to know that Josef has claimed to be a former SS agent. In order to take any action, they’ll need to be able to tie him to the historical records through facts, witness reports, or other details that can’t be fabricated.
Why is this book called The Storyteller? Within the novel, we get story upon story. The book opens with a scene that seems like something out of a different world — a tale with a folkloric flavor set in a small Polish village, in which the main character is the baker’s daughter, who feels a growing attraction to a strange young man who’s just arrived in the town, which is also beset by strange animal attacks. It’s not obvious, at first, how this tale, which weaves in between chapters of the contemporary story, actually fits into the main narrative, but it does, and is worth paying attention to.
After the initial section of the book sets up the story of Sage and Josef, we move into the heart of the book, which consists of two more sets of stories. First, we hear from Josef, who tells Sage that he is not Josef Weber after all, but Reiner Hartmann, an SS officer whom Leo is able to find in the historical record. Josef relates the story of his life to Sage, from his childhood in a typical German family to his growing success in Hitler Youth, to enrolling in the SS and becoming a part of the death machine that rolled through Poland. His story includes unflinching looks at the horrors in which he participated, slaughtering men, women, and children in village after village, and finally becoming a lead officer at Auschwitz, overseeing all female prisoners.
Josef’s confession to Sage isn’t enough, though. In order for Leo to take legal action and start the long process that could lead to extradition, deportation, and facing trial for his crimes, they need to be able to tie Josef’s story to something contained in the secret files on Reiner Hartmann, something that couldn’t have been gleaned from the public record. And at this point, Sage takes Leo to meet Minka — and Minka breaks her decades of silence by relating the terrible story of her girlhood, the fate of her family, and her own experiences in Auschwitz.
Minka’s story is the true center of the book, and Minka herself most aptly fits the role of the title, The Storyteller. Minka’s tale is lengthy, detailed, heartbreaking, and horrific. This is the longest section of the book, and is simply devastating to read. I won’t go into detail here; on the one hand, anyone who’s read the stories of Holocaust survivors will recognize some of the common elements here, yet on the other hand, Minka’s narrative is so personal and closely-observed that each loss and each degree of suffering feels like it happened to people we know. Within Minka’s narrative of what she lived through are more bits and pieces of the village tale that’s sprinkled throughout The Storyteller, and we finally discover the link between the book’s characters and the events of the tale.
The central question in The Storyteller is one of forgiveness and atonement. Can someone truly be forgiven for past crimes? Whose job, and whose right, is it to forgive? Can someone who’s committed evil acts ever make up for them? Do 50 years of helping others erase a heinous past? Does it make sense to prosecute a 95-year-old man for the crimes he committed almost seventy years earlier?
I don’t know what this person did you you, and I am not sure I want to. But forgiving isn’t something you do for someone else. It’s something you do for yourself. It’s saying, You’re not important enough to have a stranglehold on me. It’s saying, You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.
There are no easy answers here. Sage does what she feels to be the right thing by bringing in Leo and cooperating in the investigation, yet she feels a moral obligation toward Josef too. When she looks at him, she sees the horrors he committed, but at the same time she see a lonely, frail old man who loves his dog and mourns his wife of fifty years. Can she feel sorry for him even while feeling repulsed by all she knows? And how does hearing her grandmother’s story affect her ability to listen to the request Josef continues to make of her?
While painting a vivid portrait of a period of history that must not be forgotten, the author is also making an important statement about the power of stories:
Fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Secrets, lies, stories. We all tell them. Sometimes, because we hope to entertain. Sometimes, because we need to distract.
And sometimes, because we have to.
Jodi Picoult’s fiction tends not to come with easy answers. Of the four or five of her books which I’ve read, all include moral quandaries — people put in difficult or almost impossible positions, where the path forward is murky and ethical questions abound. The same is true of The Storyteller. There’s much food for thought here, and no matter what you think of Josef himself, his request, and Sage’s actions, you’ll definitely find yourself replaying scenes in your mind over and over. I’d imagine that the ending will be controversial for many, and there are certainly plenty of arguments to be made as to why it is or isn’t the right ending, or what the characters should or should not have done.
Ultimately, The Storyteller is a tale of pain and loss, but at the same time, it inspires hope simply by allowing the reader to bear witness to the courage and sacrifice that accompany all the horrors which Minka shares through her story. The Storyteller is not a light or easy read, but it’s an important one, and I applaud the author for creating a work of fiction that explores such a horrible piece of history with grace and honesty.
Title: The Storyteller
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publication date: February 26, 2013
Length: 460 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction