Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus by Art Spiegelman

What is the big deal with "Maus"? Why is a book that was published in 1991 at the top of the Amazon Best Sellers List after 30 years? Enquiring minds want to know!

Art Spiegelman's graphic novel (written in the style of a comic book) is the story of his parents' experiences in Poland before and during World War II. It won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Spiegelman began interviewing his father in 1978 about his young adulthood spent at Hitler's doorstep in 1930s Poland.

The author intertwines panels of his interviews with his father with panels of his father's story. This technique adds background to the story. It highlights the lasting effects the Holocaust had in the elder Spiegelman's life, the survivor's guilt and PTSD his parents suffered.

Spiegelman published parts of "Maus" as it was completed as a serial in a magazine. It can also be found as a two volume set, or as both volumes in one book.  This is why you see various publication dates for "Maus". Part One ends as the Spiegelmans enter Auschwitz.

As an artist, Spiegelman processes life through his art. His artistic style is intentionally vague making it difficult to distinguish between the characters. Spiegelman used animals to represent people in "Maus." The Jewish people are mice, the Germans are cats, the Polish are pigs, the French are frogs and the Americans are dogs. Actually, they all have animal heads on human bodies.

Readers are drawn to graphic novels for various reasons. Many read them for the art, others read them for the total experience. Some stories are best told in this style. Spiegelman's art has a stark, sparse feeling which adds to the sense of foreboding readers have, knowing what will happen.

"Maus" covers the build-up to the Holocaust from an adult's point of view, as an Auschwitz survivor. Throughout the book he addresses the familial trauma that occurred after the war. Woven with this story, Spiegelman explores the complicated relationship he has with his father. "One reason I became an artist was that he thought it was impractical- just a waste of time."

Graphic novels provide a unique platform to tell a story, allowing the reader to better visualize what the author is describing. After discovering a comic Spiegelman had made about his mother's suicide, his father says, "It's good you got it outside your system. But for me, it brought in my mind so much memories of Anja." This four page scene had been previously published. It shows his mother dead in a bathtub. It's the one place in the book where people are depicted with human heads. It's a dark book, about a dark subject.

"Maus" was removed from a middle school curriculum in Tennessee. Does it belong in a middle school? I don't know. I have encouraged my middle schooler to read it, but it might not be a good fit for every middle schooler.  "Maus" tells an important story-one that explains generations of trauma. It's done in a manner that evokes strong feelings, and opens the door for discussion. The graphic novel aspect of the book may make it more accessible for a reluctant reader.

Hundreds of books have been written about Jews during the Holocaust, even some for children. Most of these conclude before the concentration camps- "The Diary of Anne Frank" or have an element of naivete-"The Boy In the Striped Pajamas," or complete escape- "Number the Stars." "Maus" takes it a step further, giving the reader a safe way to glimpse what happened. To better understand how it happened.

I have two take-aways about controversial books. First, don't let other people do your thinking. It's important to read a book before jumping to a conclusion about it based on someone else's opinion, mine included. Second, they say you should walk a mile in someone else's shoes, reading a book like "Maus" is a good way to do that.