MILKWEED opens in darkness. We hear the voice of an old man. “I am running,” he says. “That’s the first thing I remember. Running.”
The year is 1942. The setting, Warsaw, Poland. Our tiny protagonist, clutching a loaf of bread he has skillfully snatched from a baker, runs for his life as the rotund baker angrily screams: “Stop Thief!” The boy, an orphan of 9 or 10, with disheveled hair and torn clothing, has heard the cry so many times he believes it is his name.
Watching, impressed, from a distance is Uri. An orphan himself, Uri feels a strange protective instinct for the small boy and leads Stopthief down a street to the safety of a nearby stable. It is here where Stopthief meets the boys who will, for a brief and heartening time, become his family. There is Olek, who has lost an arm. Educated and suspicious Ferdi. And Uri, “the only red-headed Jew in Warsaw,” whose own little brother is dead.
Uri bathes Stopthief, gives him a mattress and clothes, and softens in the little boy’s presence. We learn that Stopthief is Roma, connected to his past by fleeting memories of his beloved mother and a yellow stone hanging on a string around his neck. “I always had it,” he tells the boys.
Uri realizes that it now his job to teach Stopthief the rules of survival in a world of increasingly malicious Jackboots (German soldiers). “Jackboots are confiscating everything,” he tells Stopthief. “Soon there will be nothing left to take. Eat.”
One sunny day on a hunt for tomatoes, Stopthief – whom Uri has given the new name “Misha,” – crosses into the garden of a stately home owned by a Jewish family. He becomes love-struck as he catches the eye of the owner’s beautiful little girl who watches him from a distance, waiting to see if he will discover the wrapped butter cream heart she has buried for him in the dirt. He does. But Misha is more fascinated by her black shoes – so shiny that he can see his face – and by the strange bird-shaped pods of a bursting fluffy weed around them.
The amused girl, Janina, is about to celebrate her 10th birthday. She invites Misha to come, which he does, offending the sensibilities of the mannered family and causing an outcry when he steals Janina’s birthday cake.
Soon after, the family’s home is confiscated by the Germans and they are forced to move with precious few belongings to the ghetto, where Misha continues to steal to keep them alive. While Janina’s cold-hearted mother and arrogant uncle feel no ambivalence about the little boy risking his life to fill their stomachs, Janina’s gentle and loving father, Mr. Milgrom, struggles mightily. His love for Misha deepens, until he considers the boy his own son.
Months pass, living conditions grow intolerable. Jews are pulled out of their beds at gunpoint and forced to stand all night in the cold. Looters are hanged. Mrs. Milgrom weakens mentally and physically, never warming to Misha, whom she views as an intruder. Mrs. Milgrom’s brother, Uncle Shepsel, believes that he is safe because he is “becoming” a Lutheran. Misha, ever-present and painfully naïve about the perils around him, continues to escape at night through a tiny opening in the ghetto wall, where he runs through the streets and, miraculously, brings back food. Sometimes, much to his frustration, Janina follows.
But at a secret meeting, Mr. Milgrom learns their ultimate fate. He devises a plan to lead Misha – and Janina – to safety before the trains transport them to the camps. But, in a moment of panic, Janina rushes back into her father’s arms and is hurled roughly into a train. A devastated Misha, carrying Janina’s ripped and scuffed black shoe in his pocket, has – again – lost everything.
“I’m a filthy son of Abraham and they left me behind,” he says through sobs to a farmer who finds him wandering aimlessly. “Will you take me to Janina?”
“You make no sense,” the farmer tells him. “Are you mad?”
“I don’t know. But I’m stupid. I’m little. I’m Stopthief. I’m Misha. I’m…nobody.”
Or so he believes. Shift forward 60 years to America where we meet 43-year-old Katherine who, with her 6-year-old daughter, Grace, drives through sheets of rain to find the man she never knew. It will be a homecoming for both.
Milkweed the Movie, based on Jerry Spinelli’s breathtaking novel of the same name, will be cherished as a story of enduring love across continents and decades, of loss and healing and, ultimately, our universal search for identity.