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.