Plot Summary: Maus simultaneously tells the story of Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, and his survival during World War II (Including his imprisonment in Auschwitz), and of Spiegelman’s often tumultuous relationship with his father.
The story begins in the 1970s when Art visits with his father and his father’s second wife, Mala, to learn more about his father’s life in Poland during the war for a book he wants to draw. Art’s mother, Anja, also a survivor of the camps, committed suicide in 1968. Vladek begins the story of how he courted Anja, their marriage and firstborn son, Richieu, and how Hitler came to power, bringing with him an increasingly hostile and unsafe Germany for Jews. The story concludes with Vladek and Anja in hiding after Germans begin putting Jews on trains to the camps.
The reader also learns quite a bit about the relationship between Vladek and Art. A complicated relationship, the reader sees Art’s – and Mala’s – frustration with Vladek, who comes across as argumentative, cantankerous and miserly. He is quick to accuse Mala of wanting only his money, even stealing from him and he wants Art should be living more frugally. Maus is Art’s attempt to reconcile Art’s own feelings about his father by learning about what made him the man Art knows as much as it is his attempt to tell his father’s story.
Critical Evaluation: Maus is told in words and pictures, and these pictures have brought Spiegelman under fire in the past. He was accused of racism for his portrayal of Poles as pigs and French as frogs; he portrayed the Jews and Nazis as mice and cats and responded that all of his depictions were metaphorical. The story is starkly laid out in black and white, giving depth to the story and adding a layer of despair as the Jews’ situation worsens in Poland.
The parallel story of the relationship between Vladek and Art is equally prominent and fed by Vladek’s background. His experiences under the Nazis have formed him as they did his wife. Her suicide doubtless affects Vladek but he tries not to speak of it. The reader sees Vladek honestly and will respect him for what he’s lived through while seeing that he is a difficult man to love, despite his obvious love for his son. Vladek and Art have a complicated relationship, which many readers will understand. Maus stands as a very personal memoir of the second World War as well as a memoir of Art Spiegelman’s attempts to grow closer to his father.
Reviews: School Library Journal: “Told with chilling realism in an unusual comic-book format, this is more than a tale of surviving the Holocaust… This is a complex book. It relates events which young adults, as the future architects of society, must confront, and their interest is sure to be caught by the skillful graphics and suspenseful unfolding of the story.”
Wall Street Journal: “…the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust.”
Awards: Winner, Pulitzer Prize (1992); Nominee, National Book Critics Circle Nominations (1986, 1991); Guggenheim Fellowship (1990)
Reader’s Annotation: The story of a family’s struggle through the Holocaust and how the effects reverberate decades later.
Author Information: Art Spiegelman is an American cartoon artist. In addition to Maus, he released In the Shadow of No Towers, which covers the events and psychological fallout of September 11th, 2001. He does not have a website, but has a page on Facebook.
Genre: Graphic novel. Subgenres: Biography/Memoir; nonfiction; history; World War II.
Booktalking Ideas: Art wants to write a book about his father’s experiences during World War II, which led to Maus. It was also his attempt to get to know his father better. Have you tried to learn more about your parents? Do you think experiences in their lives have affected who they are today? Has Art also been shaped by his experiences: his parents’ experiences under the Nazis and in the camps, his brother’s death, and his mother’s suicide? How have you been shaped by your parents’ experiences?
Reading Level/Interest Age: 13+
Challenge Issues/Defense: Violence, torture. Defense: This is nonfiction. These events happened, and young adults will be learning about the events of World War II – to read someone’s personal memoirs of that time will put a more empathetic spin on these events. We cannot gloss over what happened during the Holocaust.
Why did you include this book in the titles you selected?
I had wanted to read Maus for years, but never got around to it. It has come so highly recommended and has been the topic of many conversations with my friends, and I needed to make it my business to read it.