The Painted Bird is about a young Jewish boy, separated from his parents, who survives World War 2 on his own. At the very beginning of World War 2, the parents of a six year old Jewish boy send him off to a small village while they go in hiding elsewhere. The woman the boy is staying with protects him from the occupying forces of Nazi Germany, who are rounding up all Jews for deportations and executions. When this first protector dies a few months after he arrives, he realizes that he's alone in an unjust world. He moves on and lives with an unsympathetic farmer who beats him and forces him to work like a slave.
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One day a wise old woman named Olga takes him under her wing and lets him live in her small house in the village. She teaches him many survival skills but the villagers distrust him because of his dark eyes and hair. They attack him and toss him into the river where the current takes him to another village where a miller takes him in. The miller is known by his nickname, "Jealous," because he doesn't trust his wife and always thinks she's cheating on him. The boy witnesses much cruelty at the hands of the miller. When the miller gouges out a farmhand's eyes, the boy runs away and is taken in by a man who sells birds. When the bird seller is viciously killed by the villagers, the boy runs away again and is sheltered by a carpenter, who falls into a rats' den and is eaten alive by the rodents.
The boy continually moves on after seeing horrible brutality at each place he stays. He is turned in to the Germans at one point, but a compassionate Nazi soldier lets him escape. While he is going from village to village he sees cattle trains that are crammed with people, who he realizes are Gypsies and Jews on their way to the death camps.
The boy travels from village to village and is sometimes beaten and tortured because he looks different from the blonde and blue-eyed population. He becomes mute when he is thrown into a manure trench and doesn't speak again until his parents find him in an orphanage after the war ends.
Best part of story, including ending:
The story was repulsive in its graphic descriptions of violence, but at the same time I couldn't put it down. After finishing the book, it seemed quite possible that someone could have lived just like this in a world at war.
Opinion about the main character:
The boy, whose name is never mentioned, got to live through the adventure of a lifetime. This adventure just happened to be brutal, vicious and murderous, and would obviously effect the boy's entire life in a negative manner, just like the author, Jerzy Kosinski, who apparently lived through similar experiences during the war and ultimately committed suicide.