The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

“I believe in Hell…but it’s here on earth.” He shakes his head. “Good people and bad people. As if it were this easy. Everyone is both of these at once.”

True, you couldn’t go in there and find the latest bestseller, but when you held one of those volumes in your hands, you were leafing through another person’s life. Someone else had carried that book in a backpack, devoured it over breakfast, mopped up that coffee stain at a Paris cafe, cried herself to sleep after that last chapter. The scent of their store was distinctive: a slight damp mildew, a pinch of dust. To me, it was the smell of history.

The biggest mistake people make when they think about Nazi war criminals is to assume they were always monsters; before, during, and after the war. They weren’t. They were once ordinary men, with fully operational consciences, who made bad choices and had to fabricate excuses for themselves for the rest of their lives when they returned to a mundane existence.

Inside each of us is a monster; inside each of us is a saint. The real question is which one we nurture the most, which one will smite the other.

Did I know this brutality was wrong? Even that first time, when my brother was the victim? I have asked myself a thousand times, and the answer is always the same: of course. That day was the hardest, because I could have said no. Every time after that, it became easier, because if I didn’t do it again, I would be reminded of that first time I did not say no. Repeat the same action over and over again, and eventually it will feel right. Eventually, there isn’t even any guilt.

What I mean to tell you, now, is that the same truth holds. This could be you, too. You think never. You think, not I. But at any given moment, we are capable of doing what we least expect. I always knew what I was doing. and to whom I was doing it. I knew very well. Because in those terrible, wonderful moments, I was the person everyone wanted to be.

“The only monsters I have ever known were men.”

“There was a look in their eyes, sometimes … They weren’t dreading the trigger being pulled, even if the gun was already pointed at them. It was as if they ran toward it. I could not fathom this, at first. How could you not want to draw breath one more day? How could your own life be such a cheap commodity? But then I started to understand: when your existence is hell, death must be heaven.”

My grandmother, had she been one of those who would walk toward the gun? Was that a mark of weakness, or of courage?

“It’s not the one you’re looking for, about what happened during the war. That’s not nearly as important.” She meets my gaze. “Because this story, it’s the one that kept me alive.”

It is as if she knew, even at that young age, that you cannot separate good and evil cleanly, that they are conjoined twins sharing a single heart.

It’s the question mark that comes with death that we can’t face, not the period.

“Power isn’t doing something terrible to someone who’s weaker than you, Reiner. It’s having the strength to do something terrible, and choosing not to.”

We are drawn to horror even as we recoil from it.

“It is amazing, what you can make yourself believe, when you have to.”

I think of my grandmother, who – like Josef – refused to speak of this for so long. Was it because she thought that if she didn’t talk about it, she wouldn’t have to relive it? Or was it because even a single word of memory was like opening Pandora’s box, and might let evil seep like poison into the world again?

We believe what we want to, what we need to.

Whether it was power they sought, or revenge, or love – well, those were just different forms of hunger. The bigger the hole inside you, the more desperate you became to fill it.

I was not sure what was worse: having my mother vanish in an instant, or losing my father by degrees.

It is probably the hardest thing to understand: how even horror can become commonplace. I used to have to imagine how you might look at an upior sucking the blood from the neck of a freshly killed human and not have to turn away. Now I knew from personal experience: you could see an old woman shot in the head and sigh because her blood spattered onto your coat. You could hear a barrage of gunfire and not even blink. You could stop expecting the most awful thing to happen, because it already had.

The story flowed like blood from my hand; sometimes it seemed that I was simply channeling a film that was already playing, that I was only the projector instead of the creator. When I wrote, I felt untethered, impossibly free.

There is a magic to intimacy, a world built of sighs and skin that is thicker than brick, stronger than iron. There is only you, and him, so impossibly close that nothing can come between. Not the enemy, not your allies. In this safe haven, in this hallowed place and time, I could even ask the questions whose answers I feared.

“Fascinating, to think of violence being just as intimate as love.”

For the first time I realized what that really meant. As long as you put someone else’s welfare in front of your own, it meant you had someone else to live for.

Sometimes all it takes to become human again is someone who can see you that way, no matter how you present it on the surface.

If you lived through it, you already know there are no words that will ever come close to describing it. And if you didn’t, you will never understand.

Everyone has a story; every one hides his past as a means of self-preservation.

History isn’t about dates and places and wars. It’s about the people who fill the spaces between them.

I don’t believe in God. But sitting there, in a room full of those who feel otherwise, I realize that I do believe in people. In their strength to help each other, and to thrive in spite of the odds. I believe that extraordinary trumps the ordinary, any day. I believe that having something to hope for – even if it’s just a better tomorrow – is the most powerful drug on this planet.

I look down at the spread, at Reiner Hartmann’s face. There is nothing in it that suggests the evil beneath the surface. Instead, we are forced to approximate what toxic cocktail of cells and schooling might allow a boy raised with scruples to be led to an act of genocide.

There are so many ways a family can unravel. All it takes is a tiny slash of selfishness, a rip of greed, a puncture of bad luck. And yet, woven tightly, family can be the strongest bond imaginable.

Minka’s tale reminds me of Grimm, of Isak Dinesen, of Hans Christian Andersen; of the time when fairy tales were not diluted with Disney princesses and dancing animals, but were dark and bloody and dangerous. In those old tomes, love took a toll, and happy endings came at a cost.

Nobody who looks at a shard of flint lying beneath a rock ledge, or who finds a splintered log by the side of the road would ever find magic in their solitude. But in the right circumstances, if you bring them together, you can start a fire that consumes the world.

It’s easy to say you will do what’s right and shun what’s wrong, but when you get close enough to any situation, you realize there is no black and white. There are gradations of gray.