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Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, was a Jew living in Poland in WWII. He made it through, and Maus I is Spiegelman’s story of his father’s life, as well as an exploration of the way the lives of the survivors and their family members were never the same.
Okay, let’s look at the fact that this is a graphic novel first. It absolutely works. The Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, the French are frogs–you get the idea. This is a young adult book, so I think that helps kids/teens deal with the story a little better. A skeletal mouse is alarming enough, but it would be so much harder for a child to deal with if it had been a photo of a skeletal person. As an adult who knows something about what happened, I found that the form made me see with new eyes. We’ve all seen “Schindler’s List” or read one of the books written by survivors. But this form somehow hit me a little harder, almost as if I were learning about the Holocaust for the first time.
It still stays true to the horror and atrocity. Some of it is sort of passed over, but the moments when the violence is shown stand out that much more. I’ve read quite a few Holocaust novels, but the moments of random violence in Maus I hit me hard. Spiegelman took the “less is more” approach and it worked.
There were so many things I liked about this book. The historical part of the story opens with Vladek as a reasonably prosperous young mouse marrying into a wealthy family. I liked that this is where it started. I got to see how everything was slowly stripped away until they were desperate for any shelter and any food. That stripping away is something that I haven’t come across very often. I also liked that Vladek’s ingenuity and bravery played a part in his survival, but it was obvious that the biggest factor was just dumb luck. He built or found many different hiding places. The author includes drawings of these, and I’m so glad he did. I can make sense of a picture, but a description of a complicated system for hiding usually just leaves me confused. Vladek doesn’t skip over the fact that there were some Jews who sold out others in an effort to secure their own safety. That’s not something you come across very often either. Vladek tells his own story in his slightly broken but very readable English. I liked that too. I felt like I was hearing the story instead of just reading it. I got so wrapped up in the story that I was scared every time Vladek was trying to decide whether or not to trust someone. His very survival depended on making the right judgment.
This also looks at how the Holocaust affected those who came after. Vladek survived, but did he really? He and the other survivors have a lot of psychological problems that stayed with them for life. Their problems in turn affected the children they had later, to the point that the children feel survivor’s guilt and they hadn’t even been born in WWII.
I’d recommend this for anyone who wants a bit of a fresh look at a survivor’s story. I’d also recommend it as an introduction to the Holocaust for older children and teens. If you do decide to read this, have the second one nearby. Maus I ends on a cliffhanger.
Reviewed August 14, 2009
Read an excerpt.
Buy Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History at
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