Staff Review: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” has been on my to-be-read list for quite some time. This graphic novel/memoir has been on several lists since its publication in 1986. While it was the winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, “Maus” has also appeared on several “Banned Books” lists over the years – up to and including in 2022 itself. With the Thunder Bay Museum hosting the traveling exhibit “And in 1948 I Came to Canada”: The Holocaust in Six Days”, it felt like the perfect time for me to finally pick up this work. “Maus” is written in two parts, and this review will encompass “Part One – My Father Bleeds History”. “Part Two – And Here My Troubles Began” is also available at TBPL.

“Maus” follows our author, Art Spiegelman, as he interviews his father Vladek Spiegelman for a book he plans on writing about his father’s experience during the Holocaust (the book he is writing is, of course, the book we are now discussing). While the story periodically shows Art speaking with his father, as well as Vladek’s wife Mala, the main story is that of Vladek just before and leading up to World War II and the Holocaust. Vladek narrates his story living in Poland, close to the German border. Him and his first wife Anja lived comfortably, as Vladek was a successful businessman. As time went on, Vladek’s life changes dramatically as he loses his business, his home, and is forced to flee and make deals for the preservation of his family, which included his son Richieu by this time as well. More and more of Vladek and Anja’s family are either forcibly taken, tricked into capture, or killed during this time. By the end of Part One, we learn that Vladek and Anja were taken to Auschwitz and separated.

Readers will see just from the cover that this graphic novel has a bit of a twist. Instead of portraying Vladek’s history as it was, his son Art has depicted Jewish people as mice, Polish people as pigs and the Nazi’s as cats. When Vladek and his family try to blend in and not be caught, they are depicted wearing masks to look like these other animals. The art in this graphic novel is so compelling – depicting very real stories in a new way. Readers should be aware that just because this is a graphic novel with animals does not mean that it is a story for small children.

There are very real depictions of torture, murder and suicide in the novel that Spiegelman doesn’t shy away from. From one of the opening pages in the novel, we learn that Anja, Art’s mother and Vladek’s first wife, committed suicide some years ago (after surviving the Holocaust). We learn early as well that Richieu, Vladek’s first son, does not survive the Holocaust, but do not find out his actual fate until later on. We can also see – from Art and Vladek’s interactions – that their relationship is not altogether smooth, nor is Vladek’s relationship with his second wife, Mala, who also survived the Holocaust. Both relationships are strained and tense throughout the novel.

As mentioned, this graphic novel has appeared on several lists since its publication. “Maus” has appeared on several banned book lists for the depictions of difficult topics mentioned above. The book has most recently been up for banning in Texas this year for its language, visual depictions, and mentions of violence as listed above. Spiegelman called this move “Orwellian” – as in George Orwell’s telling “1984” which depicts total government control – some felt the horrific depictions in the book were inappropriate, while others wonder how the Holocaust could possibly be taught without mentioning these horrors. Naturally, the sales for “Maus” soared after word got out of this most recent banning. Thankfully, “Maus” has also appeared on several other lists – award winning lists. It is the winner of the Eisner Award, Max & Mortiz Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize, among many others. It has been praised for the incredibly real story of a Holocaust survivor and the traumatic experiences he had to go through in order to come out the other side.

“Maus” is a tale of heartbreak, tragedy, and unspeakable trauma. Art tells his father’s story with brutal honesty and transparency, and as a result, this graphic novel is an education in the history and injustices of Jewish people. If you’ve never read “Maus” by Art Spiegelman, what are you waiting for? Place your hold today!

Learn more about the exhibit “And In 1948 I Came to Canada: The Holocaust in Six Dates” coming to the Thunder Bay Museum April 11-June 26 here!

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