A quick basis for those who aren't familiar with this book: 92-year-old Josef Weber approaches a young Jewish woman, Sage Singer, befriending her and eventually revealing that he was a Nazi soldier who worked in the women's section of the infamous Auschwitz death camp. He details his life growing up, which gives a unique perspective of a desperate, suffering Germany that accepted Hitler as their only hope of working, eating, and living again. Josef, who seems to regret his past, asks Sage to forgive him on behalf of the Jews and help him die. The other half of the story comes from Sage's grandmother and Holocaust survivor, Minka, detailing Holocaust horrors I've never read before. It is not a story for everyone, although all of the narrators' voices are captivating in their own ways.
The theme running throughout is that of forgiveness. Whose is it to give? Is there anything unforgivable? What does it mean to the person doing the forgiving? As Sage hears Josef’s Nazi history and her grandmother’s Holocaust survival story for the first time within days of each other, her mind is reeling with conflicting emotions. When she makes a connection between the stories, intense pain and anger are the emotions that win out. Knowing forgiveness is the right thing doesn’t make it the easy or logical thing to do. One particular passage caught my eye. When Sage asks how a priest can hear confessions he can't bear and still go on, her friend Mary, an ex-nun, gives her this advice on forgiveness:
"You know, Sage, Jesus didn’t tell us to forgive everyone. He said turn the other cheek, but only if you were the one who was hit. Even the Lord’s Prayer says it loud and clear: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Not others. What Jesus challenges us to do is to let go of the wrong done to you personally, not the wrong done to someone else. But most Christians incorrectly assume this means that being a good Christian means forgiving all sins, and all sinners" (Picoult 450).
What is Mary saying here? Honestly, I discussed this passage and the overall story with some trusted mentors because the idea of forgiveness is so backwards to human nature. (Their gems of wisdom are paraphrased within this paragraph, along with my own.) Simply put, that Sage must be able to forgive personally before she can forgive corporally. You cannot forgive on a bigger level until you've personally let the hurt and anger go. Something else Mary understands is that, for individuals, letting go of personal hurt often depends upon where you place the line between the forgivable and unforgivable. Although forgiveness is an exercise in grace that sets up a person's heart and mind for peace, hope, and joy, it is extremely hard to think clearly and let go in the grip of intense emotion. Rather than have Sage tackle the bigger issue in forgiving, Mary has her focus on the personal hurt, knowing it will also deal with the bigger picture at some point. Forgiveness frees the injured party from bitterness and oppression more than anything else. As it's been said, "Withholding forgiveness is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die from it."
Sage has indeed drawn a line and in the end she realizes this; however, you'll have to read the story to see her decision for yourself. Not to mention all of the other ways forgiveness comes into play in this story. If The Storyteller doesn't make you think, I don't know what will. I highly recommend it. If you'd like more background on the true story behind this story, see Jodi Picoult's site. She gives more insight on the topic of forgiveness and what she found among the Holocaust survivors she interviewed.
Anyone out there a Jodi Picoult fan - or not? Favorite book - or the one that did you in?