I love this book and with a deep sigh I say this. Not because I am not certain that I love this book, but because when I think of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief many heart wrenching emotions bubble to the surface. I listened to The Book Thief on audiobook, read by Allan Corduner, and the last twenty minutes I cried. I don’t remember the last time I cried so hard from a book. There are some stories that manipulate me into tears and those stories I do not enjoy very much. Not The Book Thief. I cried and snuffled and I meant every tear. Zusak creates such stunning, multi-dimensional characters I could not help but feel like they were a part of me. When they cried out in anguish I felt my heart wrench and turn. I clutched my aching chest and breathed. Once the book ended and I began to breathe normally again, I wanted nothing more but to read and listen to it again. I was a blubbering idiot but I knew it was because the characters had become real and wonderful. Oh so wonderful!
It’s just a small story, really, about, amongst other things:
some fanatical Germans
a Jewish fist-fighter
and quite a lot of thievery
This is how The Book Thief begins. Quickly we discover that the narrator is none other than Death, however this Death is not like any other imagined. In Zusak’s book Death is “haunted by humanity” and he sees the world in color:
“First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.”
The Book Thief, Liesel Meminger, first witnesses the death of her little brother in a train car on the way to her new foster home. He coughs until he stops and that is when Death first meets her. Liesel moves permanently in with Mr. and Mrs. Hubermann. They are not the most conventional of foster parents, but they do love her and you can feel it in the pages. The Hubermanns also accept a Jewish fist fighter, Max, into their home, hiding him in the basement. The most important aspect of this novel are the relationships between Liesel and the Hubermanns and Max and the other German children. Zusak creates a sharp and brutal picture of the atrocities against Jews, while also describing the harsh realities for the lower class German families and the Germans that disagreed with the persecution of the Jews. What happens when a good man does nothing? What happens when he does something? Death says:
“I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I even simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
Zusak’s narrator Death is occasionally skipping ahead in the story line, telling a plot point before it is set to happen. This sort of narrative requires readers to focus on the characters, not the plot. Death describes the narrative, saying:
“Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me. There are many things to think of. There is much story.”
This style reminds me of an excellent novel by Muriel Sparks, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which the narrative jumps to the end of a characters life all within a few words and sentences. In both these novels it is not if the character dies or lives, it is the relationships between characters that Zusak and Death want to emphasize in their stories.
In The Book Thief Words are very important. Leisel and the narrator emphasize Words and their impact on the world around them. Leisel struggles to read and to find the words to articulate her complicated emotions, but all these words come rushing to her by the end of the novel. Words seem to be anthropomorphised, taking on human characteristics. Leisel says:
“The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better. What good were the words?”
The Words are important because they are what tell Leisel’s story, but they are also the Fuhrer’s most powerful weapon. It is Hitler’s propaganda and powerful speeches that, in Leisel’s opinion, has created such an elitist/racist/anti-Semitic German culture. Liesel struggles with the words and eventually says:
“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
And so this is how I see Markus Zusak thinking. He has created an intensely powerful novel and essentially he hopes he has represented this time in history appropriately. He does. The Book Thief is perfect and utterly heartbreaking.
Age Group: 14 and up (Every adult should definitely read this
Genre: Young Adult, Adult Fiction
Themes: Germany, Nazi, World War II, Coming-of-age, Death
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, imprint of Random Hous