The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

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  Author's Note

  About Jodi Picoult


  This book began with another: The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal. While a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, Wiesenthal was brought to the deathbed of an SS soldier, who wanted to confess to and be forgiven by a Jew. The moral conundrum in which Wiesenthal found himself has been the starting point for many philosophical and moral analyses about the dynamics between victims of genocide and the perpetrators--and it got me thinking about what would happen if the same request was made, decades later, to a Jewish prisoner's granddaughter.

  To undertake a novel grounded in one of the most horrible crimes against humanity in history is a daunting task, because even when one is writing fiction, getting the details right becomes an exercise in honoring those who survived, and those who did not. I am indebted to the following people for their assistance in bringing to life both Sage's world in the present day and Minka's world in the past.

  For teaching me to bake bread, and the most delicious research session of my career, thanks to Martin Philip. Thanks to Elizabeth Martin and One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia, for teaching me how to bake with nefarious intent.

  For anecdotes about Catholic school, thanks to Katie Desmond. For helping me spell Darija's dance terminology, thanks to Allyson Sawyer. For teaching me the dynamics of a grief group, thanks to Susan Carpenter. For preliminary legal, law enforcement, and war tribunal questions, thanks to Alex Whiting, Frank Moran, and Lise Gescheidt.

  While writing this book, I auctioned off a character name to help raise money for the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. Thanks to Mary DeAngelis for her generosity, and for providing her name to Sage's best friend.

  Eli Rosenbaum, Director of Strategy and Policy for the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section of the Department of Justice, is a real-live Nazi hunter who found the time to teach me what he does, let me create a character based on his experiences, and still managed to slay dragons. I am incredibly grateful to know someone like him is out there tirelessly doing what he does. (And I appreciate the fact that he let me take artistic license on the speed it takes for historians to get information from NARA. In real life it would be days, not minutes.)

  I am grateful to Paul Wieser, who gave me my first lesson on Third Reich history, and to Steffi Gladebeck, who provided the German perspective. But I am most indebted to Dr. Peter Black, Senior Historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, who suffered my endless questions, corrected me with great patience, helped me cobble together a viable Nazi upbringing, and read sections to help ensure historical accuracy. I mean it wholeheartedly when I say I could not have written this book without his input.

  I am grateful to Team Jodi at Emily Bestler Books/Simon & Schuster: Carolyn Reidy, Judith Curr, Kate Cetrulo, Caroline Porter, Chris Lloreda, Jeanne Lee, Gary Urda, Lisa Keim, Rachel Zugschwert, Michael Selleck, and the many others who have helped my career grow. Thanks to the crackerjack PR team of David Brown, Valerie Vennix, Camille McDuffie, and Kathleen Carter Zrelak, who are so good at getting everyone else as excited about a new book as I always am. To Emily Bestler, I value your guidance, your friendship, your commitment to my writing, and your ability to find the best shopping websites ever.

  Laura Gross, happy anniversary. Thanks for the information on Oneg Shabbat, for letting Sage get under your skin, and most of all for being my wingman.

  Thanks to my father, who did indeed conduct a Seder in a Donald Duck voice when we were small. As for my mother--I knew she was formidable, but when I asked if maybe she could find me some Holocaust survivors, I had names and numbers within a day. She paved the way for this book, and I am grateful.

  It is to those men and women, however, that I owe the greatest debt. The extensive research I conducted for this novel included speaking to a group of amazing people--Holocaust survivors, whose experiences during the war in the ghettos, in villages, in cities, and in concentration camps fed my imagination and allowed me to create the character of Minka. Although Minka suffers similar horrors as those described to me by survivors and Nazi hunters, she is not based on any one person I met or heard about; she is truly a work of fiction. So, to the survivors who opened their homes and their hearts, I am honored that you chose to share your stories with me. Thank you, Sandy Zuckerman--who provided me with the transcript of her mother, Sylvia Green's experiences during the Holocaust. Thank you, Gerda Weissman Klein, for your courage and your creativity as a writer. Thank you, Bernie Scheer, for your honesty and your generosity of spirit while telling me your experiences. And thank you, Mania Salinger, for your bravery, for letting me rifle through the bits and pieces of your life, and for becoming a treasured friend.

  And last, thanks to my family: Tim, Kyle (who had the great foresight to take German while I was writing this book), Jake, and Samantha (who penned a few vampiric paragraphs for me to use). The four of you are the story of my life.

  For my mother, Jane Picoult, because you taught me there is nothing more important than family. And because after twenty years, it's your turn again.

  My father trusted me with the details of his death. "Ania," he would say, "no whiskey at my funeral. I want the finest blackberry wine. No weeping, mind you. Just dancing. And when they lower me into the ground, I want a fanfare of trumpets, and white butterflies." A character, that was my father. He was the village baker, and every day, in addition to the loaves he would make for the town, he would create a single roll for me that was as unique as it was delicious: a twist like a princess's crown, dough mixed with sweet cinnamon and the richest chocolate. The secret ingredient, he said, was his love for me, and this made it taste better than anything else I had ever eaten.

  We lived on the outskirts of a village so small that everyone knew everyone else by name. Our home was made of river stone, with a thatched roof; the hearth where my father baked heated the entire cottage. I would sit at the kitchen table, shelling peas that I grew in the small garden out back, as my father opened the door of the brick oven and slid the peel inside to take out crusty, round loaves of bread. The red embers glowed, outlining the strong muscles of his back as he sweated through his tunic. "I don't want a summer funeral, Ania," he would say. "Make sure instead I die on a cool day, when there's a nice breeze. Before the birds fly south, so that they can sing for me."

  I would pretend to take note of his requests. I didn't mind the macabre conversation; my father was far too strong for me to believe any of these requests of his would ever come to pass. Some of the others in the village found it strange, the relationship I had with my father, the fact that we could joke about this, but my mother had died when I was an infant and all we had was each other.

  The trouble started on my eighteenth birthday. At first, it was just the farmers who complained; who would come out to feed their chickens and find only an explosion of bloody feathers in t
he coop, or a calf nearly turned inside out, flies buzzing around its carcass. "A fox," said Baruch Beiler, the tax collector, who lived in a mansion that sat at the bottom of the village square like a jewel at the throat of a royal. "Maybe a wildcat. Pay what you owe, and in return, you will be protected."

  He came to our cottage one day when we were unprepared for him, and by this I mean we did not manage to barricade the doors and douse the fire and make it seem as if we were not at home. My father was shaping loaves into hearts, as he always did on my birthday, so that the whole town knew it was a special day. Baruch Beiler swept into the kitchen, lifted his gold-tipped cane, and smacked the worktable. Flour rose in a cloud, and when it settled I looked down at the dough between my father's hands, at that broken heart.

  "Please," said my father, who never begged. "I know what I promised. But business has been slow. If you give me just a little more time--"

  "You're in default, Emil," Beiler said. "I hold the lien on this rathole." He leaned closer. For the first time in my life, I did not think my father invincible. "Because I am a generous man, a magnanimous man, I will give you till the end of the week. But if you don't come up with the money, well, I can't say what might happen." He lifted his cane, sliding it between his hands like a weapon. "There have been so many . . . misfortunes lately."

  "It's why there are so few customers," I said, my voice small. "People won't come to market because they fear the animal that's out there."

  Baruch Beiler turned, as if noticing for the first time that I was even present. His eyes raked over me, from my dark hair in its single braid to the leather boots on my feet, whose holes had been repaired with thick patches of flannel. His gaze made me shiver, not in the same way that I felt when Damian, the captain of the guard, watched me walk away in the village square--as if I were cream and he was the cat. No, this was more mercenary. It felt like Baruch Beiler was trying to figure out what I might be worth.

  He reached over my shoulder to the wire rack where the most recent batch of loaves was cooling, plucked one heart-shaped boule from its shelf, and tucked it beneath his arm. "Collateral," he pronounced, and he walked out of the cottage, leaving the door wide open simply because he could.

  My father watched him go, and then shrugged. He grabbed another handful of dough and began to mold it. "Ignore him. He is a little man who casts a big shadow. One day, I will dance a jig on his grave." Then he turned to me, a smile softening his face. "Which reminds me, Ania. At my funeral, I want a procession. First the children, throwing rose petals. Then the finest ladies, with parasols painted to look like hothouse flowers. Then of course my hearse, drawn by four--no--five snowy horses. And finally, I'd like Baruch Beiler to be at the end of the parade, cleaning up the dung." He threw back his head and laughed. "Unless, of course, he dies first. Preferably sooner rather than later."

  My father trusted me with the details of his death . . . but in the end, I was too late.


  It is impossible to believe anything in a world that has ceased to regard man as man, that repeatedly proves that one is no longer a man.

  --Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower


  On the second Thursday of the month, Mrs. Dombrowski brings her dead husband to our therapy group.

  It's just past 3:00 p.m., and most of us are still filling our paper cups with bad coffee. I've brought a plate of baked goods--last week, Stuart told me that the reason he keeps coming to Helping Hands isn't the grief counseling but my butterscotch pecan muffins--and just as I am setting them down, Mrs. Dombrowski shyly nods toward the urn she is holding. "This," she tells me, "is Herb. Herbie, meet Sage. She's the one I told you about, the baker."

  I stand frozen, ducking my head so that my hair covers the left side of my face, like I usually do. I'm sure there's a protocol for meeting a spouse who's been cremated, but I'm pretty much at a loss. Am I supposed to say hello? Shake his handle?

  "Wow," I finally say, because although there are few rules to this group, the ones we have are steadfast: be a good listener, don't judge, and don't put boundaries on someone else's grief. I know this better than anyone. After all, I've been coming for nearly three years now.

  "What did you bring?" Mrs. Dombrowksi asks, and I realize why she's toting her husband's urn. At our last meeting, our facilitator--Marge--had suggested that we share a memory of whatever it was we had lost. I see that Shayla is clutching a pair of knit pink booties so tightly her knuckles are white. Ethel is holding a television remote control. Stuart has--again--brought in the bronze death mask of his first wife's face. It has made an appearance a few times at our group, and it was the creepiest thing I'd ever seen--until now, when Mrs. Dombrowski has brought along Herb.

  Before I have to stammer my answer, Marge calls our little group to order. We each pull a folding chair into the circle, close enough to pat someone on the shoulder or reach out a hand in support. In the center sits the box of tissues Marge brings to every session, just in case.

  Often Marge starts out with a global question--Where were you when 9/11 happened? It gets people talking about a communal tragedy, and that sometimes makes it easier to talk about a personal one. Even so, there are always people who don't speak. Sometimes months go by before I even know what a new participant's voice sounds like.

  Today, though, Marge asks right away about the mementos we've brought. Ethel raises her hand. "This was Bernard's," she says, rubbing the television remote with her thumb. "I didn't want it to be--God knows I tried to take it away from him a thousand times. I don't even have the TV this works with, anymore. But I can't seem to throw it out."

  Ethel's husband is still alive, but he has Alzheimer's and has no idea who she is anymore. There are all sorts of losses people suffer--from the small to the large. You can lose your keys, your glasses, your virginity. You can lose your head, you can lose your heart, you can lose your mind. You can relinquish your home to move into assisted living, or have a child move overseas, or see a spouse vanish into dementia. Loss is more than just death, and grief is the gray shape-shifter of emotion.

  "My husband hogs the remote," Shayla says. "He says it's because women control everything else."

  "Actually, it's instinct," Stuart says. "The part of the brain that's territorial is bigger in men than it is in women. I heard it on John Tesh."

  "So that makes it an inviolable truth?" Jocelyn rolls her eyes. Like me, she is in her twenties. Unlike me, she has no patience for anyone over the age of forty.

  "Thanks for sharing your memento," Marge says, quickly interceding. "Sage, what did you bring today?"

  I feel my cheeks burn as all eyes turn to me. Even though I know everyone in the group, even though we have formed a circle of trust, it is still painful for me to open myself up to their scrutiny. The skin of my scar, a starfish puckered across my left eyelid and cheek, grows even tighter than usual.

  I shake my long bangs over my eye and from beneath my tank top, pull out the chain I wear with my mother's wedding ring.

  Of course, I know why--three years after my mom's death--it still feels like a sword has been run through my ribs every time I think of her. It's the same reason I am the only person from my original grief group still here. While most people come for therapy, I came for punishment.

  Jocelyn raises her hand. "I have a real problem with that."

  I blush even deeper, assuming she's talking about me, but then I realize that she's staring at the urn in Mrs. Dombrowski's lap.

  "It's disgusting!" Jocelyn says. "We weren't supposed to bring something dead. We were supposed to bring a memory."

  "He's not a something, he's a someone," Mrs. Dombrowski says.

  "I don't want to be cremated," Stuart muses. "I have nightmares about dying in a fire."

  "News flash: you're already dead when you're put into the fire," Jocelyn says, and Mrs. Dombrowski bursts into tears.

  I reach for the box of tissues, and pass it toward her. While Marge reminds Jocelyn about the rule
s of this group, kindly but firmly, I head for the bathroom down the hall.

  I grew up thinking of loss as a positive outcome. My mother used to say it was the reason she met the love of her life. She'd left her purse at a restaurant and a sous-chef found it and tracked her down. When he called her, she wasn't home and her roommate took the message. A woman answered when my mom called back, and put my father on the phone. When they met so that he could give my mother back her purse, she realized he was everything she'd ever wanted . . . but she also knew, from her initial phone call, that he lived with a woman.

  Who just happened to be his sister.

  My dad died of a heart attack when I was nineteen, and the only way I can even make sense of losing my mother three years later is by telling myself now she's with him again.

  In the bathroom, I pull my hair back from my face.

  The scar is silver now, ruched, rippling my cheek and my brow like the neck of a silk purse. Except for the fact that my eyelid droops, skin pulled too tight, you might not realize at first glance that there's something wrong with me--at least that's what my friend Mary says. But people notice. They're just too polite to say something, unless they are under the age of four and still brutally honest, pointing and asking their moms what's wrong with that lady's face.

  Even though the injury has faded, I still see it the way it was right after the accident: raw and red, a jagged lightning bolt splitting the symmetry of my face. In this, I suppose I'm like a girl with an eating disorder, who weighs ninety-eight pounds but sees a fat person staring back at her from the mirror. It isn't even a scar to me, really. It's a map of where my life went wrong.

  As I leave the bathroom, I nearly mow down an old man. I am tall enough to see the pink of his scalp through the hurricane whorl of his white hair. "I am late again," he says, his English accented. "I was lost."

  We all are, I suppose. It's why we come here: to stay tethered to what's missing.

  This man is a new member of the grief group; he's only been coming for two weeks. He has yet to say a single word during a session. Yet the first time I saw him, I recognized him; I just couldn't remember why.

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