That night, Oskar wakes his mom up to ask what the storage facility was called, hoping it somehow involved the word “Black.” His mom says it was called Store-a-Lot. 

Analysis: Chapter 5

This chapter introduces the theme of the importance of the small and personal over the great and famous. Oskar’s dad’s anecdote about the Sahara Desert celebrates the ability of a single person’s small actions to make a difference in the world. Instead of focusing on the scale of the change, Oskar’s dad encourages Oskar to appreciate that he can enact change as an individual. Grandma, in fact, explains that making large changes or inventions sometimes creates harm when she says that the inventor of the atomic bomb was great but not good. By disconnecting the idea of being great from being good or moral, Grandma suggests that greatness is a distinction of dubious value. Taken together, we see that Oskar’s family prioritizes small but positive actions over grand, destructive accomplishments. Oskar, though, does not yet seem to understand the value of small actions, as is evident in his confusion over the inventor of the atomic bomb being considered great and in his persistent letters to famous figures like Stephen Hawking.

Oskar’s journey to Aaron Black’s house foreshadows the ways Oskar’s world will expand throughout his quest. Most clearly, his confusion about a building without a doorman tells us that Oskar hasn’t had many encounters with people less wealthy than his family. If Oskar is to meet every person named Black in New York City, he will inevitably encounter a wide variety of lives even further from his own experience. The borough-less spot Oskar encounters on the bridge is a liminal, or in-between, space and there is no clear answer as to whether it exists in Manhattan or Queens. This ambiguous space hints that Oskar will encounter more such places with no easy answers, but his curiosity about the spot—as opposed to fear—suggests that he is capable of finding peace with ambiguity. Despite all this newness, Oskar still shakes his tambourine to remind himself that he’s still himself, demonstrating that expanding his horizons doesn’t erase who he is. Tambourines are percussion instruments, creating the beat of a song and giving it order and structure. Despite all the uncertainty, Oskar can still find ways to understand and give order to the world around him.

Throughout this chapter, Oskar lies in order to make people like him more, revealing a deep insecurity. In light of Oskar’s earlier assertion that beautiful things aren’t true, Oskar’s lying represents his belief that true things are ugly, which would drive people away from him and his ugly truths. Accordingly, in order to connect with Aaron and Abby, he lies. When he wants to make himself appear vulnerable to Aaron, he claims to be younger than he is. When wanting to impress Abby, he says he’s older than is true, suggesting that he doesn’t believe he can connect with either person at his actual age. Oskar’s lies also serve to emphasize how lost and upset he feels without his dad. He tells Abby that he’s a diabetic and needs food and care, reflecting his own need to feel cared for in light of his dad’s death. As with the bruises Oskar gives himself, he lies about having diabetes in order to externalize his emotional pain as something physical. He doesn’t believe that people will respect his emotional pain as something serious or worth attention, so he tries to make it physically manifest.

Oskar’s conversation with Abby about elephants raises important questions about the goodness of human nature that Oskar wrestles with throughout the novel. Oskar’s desire to focus on kissing as a uniquely human attribute contrasts with his assertion in Chapter 3 that humans will destroy each other within fifty years. But Abby’s rejection reminds him of his pessimism. From this incident, it’s clear that Oskar still has an optimist inside him who wants to see love and goodness in humanity. Intriguingly, through Oskar’s own admission, humans both kiss and wage war; they do both good and bad. Like the spot on the 59th Street Bridge that exists in no borough, humans do not fit into a simple moral binary. In contrast, Oskar reveals that elephants mourn but do not wage war, which implies that elephants have a better nature than humans. Oskar and Thomas both love animals, and their ability to see good in animals more easily than in people highlights how their grief causes them to doubt humanity.

This chapter shows the potential of grief to prevent people from connecting with others. At this point in the novel, Oskar’s focus on his own sadness hinders his empathy. He becomes angry at Aaron for not immediately answering the buzzer, not considering the myriad possible reasons someone would have for not immediately answering. Because of his trauma-induced anxiety, Oskar rejects Aaron’s offer to talk to him, choosing his own sorrow and fear over human connection. Oskar believes that he’s the one who should be crying when he sees Abby cry because he is caught up in his own grief to the extent that he cannot imagine others’ misfortunes. Finally, Oskar acts on his desire to feel needed in the wake of his dad’s death to the extent that he traumatizes his grandma. In this instance, Oskar quickly realizes that he’s hurt Grandma with his prank, but he tries to overcompensate by constantly assuring her he’s okay. Oskar believes that his grief can cause him to hurt people. Accordingly, he tries to hide his grief.