Title: The Storyteller
Genre: Historical Fiction
Date Published: February 26, 2013
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?
Having seen Picoult’s name on every drugstore and airport book stand for years, I thought she was a romance writer. Boy, was I wrong.
In “The Storyteller,” a bereaved and damaged young woman, Sage, befriends a frail and elderly man—only to discover he had once been an SS officer at Auschwitz. This would be sufficiently alarming for most of us, but in Sage’s case, she is of Jewish descent, and her grandmother Minka, still living, had been a prisoner at Auschwitz, with the arm tattoo to prove it.
As if this were not moral dilemma enough, her new friend, Josef, asks her to kill him so he can expiate his sins against the Jews.
What Sage does with this information forms the core of the book, but there is also a story within the story. Minka wrote a story while she was a prisoner, on the backs of family photos taken surreptitiously from the pockets of Jews who were sent to the ovens. Her SS boss required her to read from her story every day, and like Scheherazade, she tells a little bit of her story to stay alive each day. Minka’s themes of family—especially sibling relationships—love, the role of food in our lives, and the nature of evil, resonate through the present-day story as well.
The story raises so many questions. I asked myself, if I were in Sage’s position, would I report Josef to the FBI? Someone who trusted me enough to confess who he really had been? On the other hand, his crimes were unforgivable. Would I agree to kill such a man? He asks Sage to forgive him before he dies. Would I forgive a dying man, no matter what his crimes—or not?
The book is tightly written and deftly plotted, with several sub-plots (including a budding romance for Sage). At the end, all loose ends are nicely wrapped up. But the moral questions remain, including the question of how Sage will handle her new romantic relationship with the burden of her own past actions weighing on her soul.
I think I just became a Jodi Picoult fan. If an author can make me think deeply enough to question myself about my own moral stance, that author is worth reading.