An astonishing novel about redemption and forgiveness from the “amazingly talented writer” (Huffington Post) and #1 New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult.
Some stories live forever . . .
Sage Singer is a baker. She works through the night, preparing the day’s breads and pastries, trying to escape a reality of loneliness, bad memories, and the shadow of her mother’s death. When Josef Weber, an elderly man in Sage’s grief support group, begins stopping by the bakery, they strike up an unlikely friendship. Despite their differences, they see in each other the hidden scars that others can’t.
Everything changes on the day that Josef confesses a long-buried and shameful secret and asks Sage for an extraordinary favor. If she says yes, she faces not only moral repercussions, but potentially legal ones as well. With the integrity of the closest friend she’s ever had clouded, Sage begins to question the assumptions and expectations she’s made about her life and her family. In this searingly honest novel, Jodi Picoult gracefully explores the lengths to which we will go in order to keep the past from dictating the future.
The Storyteller 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 the 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.
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The Storyteller By Jodi Picoult Reading Group Discussion Guide This reading group guide forThe Storytellerincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When Sage Singer learns that the elderly widower she befriends in her grief group is a regular customer at Our Daily Bread, where she is the baker extraordinaire, it is not all that remarkable. In their tight-knit community of Westerbrook, New Hampshire, Josef Weber is widely known and beloved as the retired German teacher and a little league coach. But when Josef unexpectedly implores Sage to kill him, she could not be more surprised. Josef confesses to Sage his darkest secret: that he deserves to die at her hands because he was a member of the SS guard in Nazi Germany a lifetime ago, and because she is a Jew. As Sage considers Josef’s request, she reflects on the sacrifices made by her grandmother, Minka, a Holocaust survivor, and on the millions of other victims of the Nazi genocide. Confused, Sage seeks help from Leo Stein, a Justice Department attorney tasked with bringing war criminals to international tribunals. When Leo encourages Sage to connect the dots between her grandmother’s experiences at Auschwitz and those in Josef Weber’s story, she must first face her own moral failings and confront her own beliefs about the true meaning of justice.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Storyteller opens with a story within a story: the gripping narrative that Minka Singer composes: first as a young student in Lodz, then from the ghetto where her family finds itself exiled, and finally, during her imprisonment at Auschwitz. How does the tale of Ania and Aleksander and Casmir Lubov intersect with the plot of the larger novel? In what ways does this fantastical tale of two brothers and the myth of the upior connect with the brutality of the Holocaust and the ongoing hunt for Nazi war criminals?
2. “Josef Weber is as close as you can get to being canonized while you’re still alive. Everyone in Westerbrook knows him…[h]e’s everyone’s adoptive cuddly grandfather.” (p. 22) How does Mary’s estimation of Josef Weber square with what Sage learns of him? How is Josef Weber’s public persona incompatible with the truths that he reveals to Sage? To what extent is it possible for someone who hides a terrible secret to be so seemingly good?
3. By way of explaining her self-imposed solitude, Sage reveals her dramatic facial scar to Josef Weber, in spite of her general embarrassment about her disfigurement. What is it about Josef Weber that Sage finds herself drawn to? To what extent does the genesis of their friendship seem entirely coincidental? At what point in the novel does Sage start being his friend and at what point does she stop?
4. “One of the first things Adam told me was that I was pretty, which should have been my first clue that he was a liar.” (p. 25) Is Sage’s extramarital relationship with Adam consistent with her character’s values? What does their affair offer her? To what extent does Adam’s love for Sage seem genuine? How does he seem to embody the qualities of the “liar” that Sage calls him?
5. “The reason that we go to meet the people who bring us tips about potential Nazis is so that we can make sure they aren’t nuts.” (p. 213) How does Leo Stein’s personality come across in the chapters in the book that he narrates? Why does Leo Stein find Sage Singer irresistible when he first meets her? How does Sage’s on again/off again relationship with Adam complicate her feelings for Leo?
6. “And why does it make me sick to hear him label me; to think that, after all this time, Josef would still feel that one Jew is interchangeable for another?” (p. 61) How do you interpret Josef’s interest in Sage’s Jewish heritage? Given that Sage does not self-identify as a Jew, and does not even believe in God, is she any less qualified to help Josef carry out his death? To what degree does the logic of Josef’s plan hinge on Sage’s being a Jew?
7. “I knew that what the Hauptscharführer saw in my book was…an allegory, a way to understand the complicated relationship between himself and his brother…[i]f one brother was a monster, did it follow that the other had to be one too?” (p. 382) What do Franz and Reiner Hartmann’s gestures toward Minka reveal about their true characters as individuals? Why does Josef Weber choose to lie about his identity (twice) to Sage? To what extent does Josef’s decision mirror that of Aleks Lubov, who chooses to protect the identity of his brother, Casmir, as the monster who terrorizes the village in Minka’s upior story?
8. How do Josef Weber’s recollections of life during the war compare to the memories of Sage’s grandmother, Minka? How did their witnessing so much death up close impact them, respectively, as perpetrator and survivor of the Holocaust? Why did both of them choose to keep details of this period of their life a secret from those closest to them for so long? How did their stories impact you as a reader?
9. “I started to pull the hem of the sweater, so that the weave unraveled. I rolled the yarn up around my arm like a bandage, a tourniquet for a soul that was bleeding out.” (p. 339) How does Minka react when she discovers her father’s bag among the cast-off belongings of Jews condemned to the gas chambers? What does this moment mark in her young life? How does her knowledge of German save her from a worse punishment for wanton destruction of property?
10. As she sorts and separates the belongings of the murdered victims of Auschwitz, Minka secretly collects the cast-off photographs of people who have been condemned to die. What does her risking severe punishment and the possibility of death in order to keep other people’s memories intact, reveal about her need to salvage and preserve something from destruction? Were you surprised when these photographs reappeared in the novel at the book’s conclusion?
11. Why does Sage decide to take justice into her own hands and grant Josef Weber his dying wish? How did you feel upon discovering that Sage was misled by Weber about his true identity? To what extent does Sage seem to forgive Weber for his actions? Why does Sage conceal her behavior from Leo Stein, and to what extent does her behavior seem rational and understandable, given all that she has endured—and lost—herself?
12. There are many storytellers complicit in the creation of this novel—the author, Jodi Picoult; Sage’s grandmother, Minka; Josef Weber, a.k.a. Franz Hartmann; Sage Singer, the protagonist who shapes the narrative through her actions; the many nameless victims of the Holocaust; even the reader, who constructs his or her own interpretation of these multiple narratives. Why do you think Jodi Picoult chose this title for her novel? How does the novel’s conclusion allow the reader to participate actively in the process of storytelling?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In The Storyteller, Minka Singer’s fictional character, Ania, enjoys a special treat prepared by her father, the baker, just for her—a sweet pastry with cinnamon and chocolate that he fashions into a little puff. When Sage fashions a similar treat for her grandmother, Minka reveals that it tastes just as good as the ones her actual father used to bake for her. How does food connect families across generations? How does food retain memories? What are some of the special foods you enjoy that connect you back in time to relatives or the past? Members of your book group may want to bring their special foods to share at your next gathering.
2. When the Nazi soldiers force Minka’s family to leave their home and relocate to the Lodz ghetto, they give them just five minutes to clear out and take anything of value. If you were forced to evacuate your home in five minutes, would you know what items to bring with you and what to leave behind? What would be on your very short list of essentials? Your book group members may want to share what precious things they would choose to bring with them in such an unlikely event.
3. Josef Weber provides Sage Singer with a distinctly moral dilemma when he asks her to kill him to avenge the thousands of Jews who perished at his hands during the Holocaust. How, if at all, might the story be different if Mary DeAngelis, the owner of Our Daily Bread and a former nun, had received the same request? What roles do our personal attachments and beliefs play in the significant moral decisions we make every day? What are some of the philosophical, religious, and moral beliefs that you carry with you and that consciously or unconsciously inform your decision-making? How would you have responded to Josef Weber’s request?
4. Cook up a batch of Mink’s Rolls!
• 1/2 cup warm milk, 110 degrees
• 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
• 1/2 cup sugar, plus a pinch
• 1 large egg, room temperature
• 1 large egg yolk
• 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for bowl and muffin tin
• ¼ pound bittersweet chocolate, very finely chopped or shaved
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Butter a large non-reactive bowl for dough and set aside. 2. Butter a 12-cup muffin tin and set aside.
3. Pour warm milk into a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast and pinch of sugar over milk; let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
4. In a bowl, whisk together ¼ cup sugar, 1 egg, and 1 egg yolk. Add egg mixture to yeast mixture, and whisk to combine.
5. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flour and salt. Add egg mixture, and beat on low speed until almost all the flour is incorporated.
6. Change to the dough hook. Add 3 tablespoons butter, and knead on low speed until flour mixture and butter are completely incorporated, about 10 minutes. Dough will be sticky.
7. Butter a large bowl. Place dough in bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a dish towel. Set aside in a warm place to rise until dough doubles in size, about 1 hour.
8. If dough is not in a warm area it may take longer to rise. A simple trick to help warm your dough – place a large pan of boiling water on the lowest rack in your oven and place bowl of dough on the next highest rack. This should help the dough rise.
9. Prepare filling: Place chocolate, remaining ¼ cup sugar, and cinnamon in a large bowl, and stir to combine. Add 3 tablespoons butter and toss to combine. Alternately, place chocolate, cinnamon and butter in food processor and pulse to combine. Set aside.
10. Once dough has doubled, turn onto a well-floured surface and deflate. Let dough rest for 5 minutes.
11. With rolling pin, roll dough into large rectangle shape. Sprinkle filling over dough; roll the dough into a log and slice into 2” pieces. Place each slice in muffin cup. Cover muffin tin with plastic and let sit for 15-20 minutes or until dough rises slightly.
12. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
13. Bake for approximately 12-15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on wire rack.
Jodi Picoult received an AB in creative writing from Princeton and a master’s degree in education from Harvard. The recipient of the 2003 New England Book Award for her entire body of work, she is the author of twenty-six novels, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers House Rules, Handle With Care, Change of Heart, and My Sister’s Keeper, for which she received the American Library Association’s Margaret Alexander Edwards Award. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. Visit her website at JodiPicoult.com.
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