Museum Fellowship Book Reviews

 
 

book cover used by permission of Pantheon BooksMaus
Art Spiegelman
New York: Pantheon Books, 1986

Reviewed by:
Doug Wadley

Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School
Bradley, Illinois

 
 

For the past four years, I have used Art Spiegelman’s biographical/autobiographical comic strip Maus in teaching the Holocaust to high school students. I first came to know this fascinating work of social science (it deals with history obviously; some might find it useful for sociology, psychology, and anthropology) as a college student upon release of the first volume in 1986. Originally serialized in the pages of the underground comic magazine Raw (which Spiegelman edited) in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s, Pantheon Books collected the first six installments into paperback. A comic book aficionado, I bought my copy of this work in the history section of a mainstream bookstore. I read it in one sitting – it is the proverbial “page-turner”. Volume Two was released in 1992.

Students from 9th-12th grades really connect with the characters in Maus. From the foreshadowing introductory pages, kids are drawn into the relationship between Art Spiegelman and his father, Vladek. They want to know why Vladek is so gruff and why he is seemingly distant from his son. As the first chapter unfolds, the reader gets right into Art’s dysfunctional family and finds Vladek’s life story played out. A well-to-do textile salesman, Vladek eventually marries into a wealthy Polish family. From there, Spiegelman details the slow spiral down into the Nazi-made hell that would become the lives of Eastern European Jews in the 1930’s. Throughout these trials, Vladek comes to us not as the sometimes-nasty, often-irritating old man of the present (early 1970’s, actually), but a resourceful, wise, lucky, and compassionate planner who is most interested in preserving the family’s lives and existence as they know it. The reader also accustoms himself to Spiegelman’s style of showing the actual interviews he carried out with his father for the information he’d later use to write this very tome, and the past events that Spiegelman depicts from those interviews.

The tale winds through many Holocaust events, from legal harassment of Jews to attempts at emigration to hiding. Spiegelman does a particularly wonderful job of taking the reader into the hiding places. Using the taped interviews with his father, some of which included Vladek sketching details on paper, and cutaway drawings, Art is able to reconstruct for the reader’s imagination Jewish hiding places in a storage shed as well as a coal hopper. Volume Two chronicles the travails of both Spiegelman’s mother and father as inmates of Auschwitz. Their ability to survive is detailed, and truly hammers home the point that many survivors have made: the number one reason for survival was luck. Upon liberation, readers walk with the Spiegelmans as they attempt to find information on relatives, as well as rebuild their lives.

Students at first balk at the notion that a Holocaust story is being told a) in comic book format, and b) with anthropomorphic animals as the characters. This quickly subsides. By the end of the first chapter, it has been forgotten that there are even animals in the book, unless it comes up in discussion of Spiegelman’s metaphors. Slower readers/learners appreciate the pictures – it doesn’t seem to them like reading a novel, yet they are as locked-in as anyone else in the classroom. Older students, even “gifted” students, also do well with the graphic novel – it doesn’t hold anyone back. In fact, my experience has been that students hate to stop at the end of the assignment! On more than a few occasions, I’ve had students tell me that they couldn’t wait until the next day to read again and so they spent an hour at the local Barnes & Noble reading ahead! Prospective teachers should be advised, too, that Spiegelman pulls no punches in terms of the use of violence, both graphically and implied, and language. A simple disclaimer before reading commences usually alleviates any problems.

Maus is a gripping Holocaust work for mature readers of all ages. It is a story about a family that could be yours, or your next-door neighbor. It fosters passionate discussion and intense debate. A Pulitzer prize-winning work, Maus should be read by all students of this dark time in our history.



Return to Museum Fellowship Teaching Resources