Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A recommendation

I feel sort of trivial writing about Young Adult books here after Otepoti’s moving post, but The Book Thief was so good, I wanted to say something about it.  I started to write about it before I finished it because I was enjoying it so much, but I worried that the ending would disappoint. I shouldn’t have -- throughout the last chapter, I was in tears, but although the ending is full of tragedy (the book is about a German girl during WWII), it is also full of hope.  This book lives up to its jacket blurbs – it really is stunning.  I felt like I couldn’t move after I closed the cover.

The story is a bit difficult to figure out in the beginning, until you realize the narrator is Death, and he rambles. But eventually the narrative voice gets stronger. Death narrows his focus to Liesel Meminger, a foster child in Germany at the outbreak of WWII. She is not Jewish, but her foster father was saved from death by a Jew in WWI, so he is reluctant to join the Nazi party even though he loses customers for his painting business. He also loses his son. But he gains a relationship with the son of the man who saved him (and taught him to play the accordion), when that man’s son seeks him out for help.  So a Jew hides in the basement while Liesel deals with her feelings of rejection, her sorrow over her little brother’s death, and her difficulties in school and life – hunger, loneliness, confusion over the changing political landscape.  But she finds purpose when her foster father begins teaching her to read the book she picked up (or stole) off the ground at her brother’s funeral.  As Liesel becomes a better reader, and shares her knowledge, she and the hiding Jew and her foster parents find consolation, common ground, and hope in books.

The story moves slowly, but it is beautifully told. Markus Zusak is a poet. The form might be difficult for a preteen reader; actually this book could be just as much at home in the adult section as on the YA shelf – but the preteen who sticks with it will surely feel as enlarged after reading it, as I did. It’s a good book for reading in small snatches, conveniently, because the language deserves to be savored.

For example, this scene, in which Liesel, the book thief, hears a noise in the night after her foster father has been drafted, and she sneaks out of bed to discover her foster mother, a curmudgeonly woman, sitting in the dark holding her husband's accordion:  

"Many minutes dripped past. The book thief's desire to hear a note was exhausting, and still, it would not come. The keys were not struck. The bellows didn't breathe. There was only the moonlight, like a long strand of hair in the curtain, and there was Rosa.

The accordion remained strapped to her chest. When she bowed her head, it sank to her lap. Liesel watched. She knew that for the next few days, Mama would be walking around with the imprint of an accordion on her body. There was also an acknowledgement that there was great beauty in what she was currently witnessing, and she chose not to disturb it."

I read this book in between some other books that I didn’t like so much, and its beauty was a stark contrast. While reading Anne Rice’s Feast of All Saints, I couldn’t find a single character I really liked; in The Book Thief, I loved them all.  They were all human, flawed but worthy of compassion. which I suppose is one of the themes of the book: the discovery of the humanity of those around us. Another theme: Liesel learns that while words can be full of truth and beauty, they also can be used to spread lies and ugliness. Her friend the hiding Jew Max writes her a simple but straightforward story about the intangible gifts she has given him with her words, but he also illustrates how insidious Hitler’s propaganda has been.

It was back at Christmas that I bought this book for my 13 year old. He wasn’t as impressed by it as I was, but did agree that it was good.  I didn’t read it before giving it to him because I wasn’t in the mood for one more Holocaust story. But it isn’t the typical story.  There is no suspense about what is going to happen because you know the story from history books and because Death tells you who is going to die. But you keep reading because you want to know how it happened, how it changed these people, how they persevered.  And the reading is rewarding – even though the book is not explicitly religious (other than in the certitude that Death is gathering souls – but taking them where?), it clearly shows that sacrificial love makes life meaningful. I hope that my kids who read it are strengthened in the belief that relationships and words matter. 


Otepoti said...

Hi, Emily, I'm glad to see your post back again. I didn't want to bogart the blog.

I notice Zusak is an Australian, and the book was published in 2005. Since it's an historical novel, does it convince you with its historical detail as well as its psychological truth?

Also, how did your son react to the historical background? Did he ask any questions?

I wonder sometimes why there are so many Holocaust YA novels, and so few "Pol Pot Killing Fields" ones.


Emily J. said...

O - the details were minimal, since the action primarily was limited to one town, and the main characters were civilians. But there were some comments about the soldiers losing in Russia, which I don't remember learning much about that front. Since the novel was narrated by Death, I suppose I accepted historical details with a grain of salt. What was interesting was the fact that the main characters were Germans who were intimidated by the Nazis, but were as yet unaware of the horrors of the camps, so they didn't show a great amount of antipathy either - they heil'd Hitler right and left, joined the Hitler Youth Movement but skipped meetings, etc - which I thought was probably realistic.

My son didn't ask many questions, but he did mention he was confused until he figured out the Death piece. I'm sorry to admit that while I keep shoving books his way, we don't usually discuss them, unless he particularly dislikes them, like Great Expectations.

I've also wondered why so many Holocaust stories? My son did say he liked The Boy in the Striped Pajamas better. I remember reading Summer of My German Soldier in middle school and becoming fascinated by WWII, and there was plenty to read. Is it because that war in particular provided civilians with direct contact with the banality of evil? (Hannah Arendt?) Because the tragedies are so many and so varied, as were the opportunities for heroism? Because Europeans are more accessible than Vietnamese? I don't know.

mrsdarwin said...

Another good question is, why so many stories about, say, concentration camps, and so few about the killing fields in the Ukraine and the Russian/German border? Brendan has been reading a book about how the bulk of the Holocaust happened -- not, as popularly portrayed, in the camps, but by mass execution squads traveling the countryside. The camps were either for labor, in which case the inmates were meant to survive (for a time) or for when the Germans realized they needed to get efficient about mass elimination. This stuff is so horrible, but we don't even know the half, the tenth of it.

Emily, the German were engaged in multi-front war, of course, but Russia was one of their main targets. In fact, the American supplied the Germans with some supplies for their Russian front, since they were keeping Stalin tied up.

Otepoti, you're right that there are vast swathes of human suffering that are barely known, but ought to be. I've been very grateful lately for the time and the place that I live in. I dwell in safety.

Otepoti said...

I wondered what you all thought about presenting the Problem of Evil in fiction form to children.

I know my early acquaintance with the Holocaust, via Anne Frank, was an awful shock: it threw me terribly, for weeks. Nothing in my background equipped me to cope with the knowledge of the depths of human evil.

So how has that first contact with how bad humans can be worked out in your families?