Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Book Thief (2005)

by DionysusPsyche

Books, books, books
As an elementary school and junior high student, I read a handful of unforgettable books. They not only gave adolescents across the board literary heroes their age to admire, but transformed and hopefully imprinted the history on the minds who read them. The books were based on actual events and sturdied by strong roots they were tied to (minus the non-fictional account which was also important which I will mention by name shortly).

Every few years though, it felt like we went back to one particular point in history—a horrific and saddening series of years that everyone, most of all teachers of young children, thought were important lessons to learn. After all, ages ten through fourteen can be the sweetest or the cruelest years of all.

A Book About Someone Who Loves Books
The Book Thief revolves around a little girl who is present during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and what it meant for her and others, like The Diary of Anne Frank or Number the Stars. The book doesn't hit you over the head with facts (although it didn't obscure them either), and you don't need to know much about the war in order to read and enjoy the story. Although it's a good idea to prepare yourself.

The narrator is the most apt and unusual one I've come across so far—it is told by Death. By the time he tells the story, it is many years past the war. Yet, he remembers it accurately—how could he forget? Death is weary, reluctant, and knows no rest. He's collected many, many souls, and he is not a narrator who enjoys his life's work, although he tries to do right by it. Claiming he is always in “the right place at the right time,” Death has, like those he takes with him, been dealt a hand to play. When he first comes across the book thief, otherwise known as Liesel, he is intrigued.

Upon first learning the truth about the narrator, I was hesitant to continue. It's disturbing when the voice of your novel is the ultimate fear, and when the time is 1930's Germany, it is obvious he is going to be an integral part of it. He's not the side character as is the voice in The Great Gatsby or someone you can initially write off like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.Yet, I wanted to see where he was going with this, and thankfully I did. There may be solemn and depressing moments, but the happy ones and the optimistism that comes out was one worth reading and waiting for.

A piece of what draws you in is the fact that Death drops hints and not-so-veiled spoilers about what will happen, but the reader doesn't know when and how these things will take place. Hence, each chapter brings a quicker heartbeat and even segments that begin benignly and beautifully carry an air of apprehension, which must have been what it was like living back then.

Liesel, like the story teller, has seen a rough life. She's adopted just after watching her brother die in her arms. She's scared, sad, and confused. Throughout the novel, as things become worse for Germany and Liesel's family, she, like any young girl, comes into her own. As a child, when things are off, one has the sense that something is wrong, but not how or why. This is how Liesel feels at the beginning, but by the end of the novel, she has a clearer sense of what is right, what is wrong, and what lines can be blurred due to the state of the country.

Fortunately, she has some wonderful people in her life that play significant roles in making her the woman she becomes. Her father, Hans Hubermann, is an upstanding, gentle, and joking painter who plays the accordian. He also teaches Liesel how to read. I loved Hans, and from the moment he's introduced, I knew that he's going to be for Liesel what Atticus Finch is for Scout.

Despite their poor existence, her father rarely has work and her mother does laundry for a select few of the richer folks in town, Hans tries to give Liesel a better life. He soothes her nightmares, he hugs her, he sells his cigarettes (one of his few wordly pleasures) to buy her Christmas presents. Hans is everything a father should be, and he's also one hell of a friend and employee, cheering up those around him, making wise cracks, helping out those less fortunate to create a better world.

Hans' one shortcoming in the book makes him a hero in ours—he is not a follower of the Gestapo nor a member of the Nazi party. Hans is the first person we meet in the book who is a non-conformist, and during that time period, it was not only popular in Germany to be pro-Hitler, but it was dangerous if you weren't. Hans attempts to hide his beliefs and keep his opinions to himself recognizing the problems it could cause for his family. Yet, because he's such an upstanding person, his true colors shine through to those who know him, and it causes rifts.

But my favorite person is Liesel's best friend and neighbor, Rudy Steiner. In many ways, Rudy is a younger, brighter, more boisterous and exuberant version of Liesel's father. Except Rudy is a little crazy. He's obsessed with the athlete Jesse Owens, loves soccer, and adores Liesel. Constant confidantes, Rudy and Liesel are inseparable and always up to something together—Liesel's always looking for a new book, and Rudy's always hungry. He would do anything for her and does do a great deal.

The Best and the Worst of Us
Because it is a novel aimed at youth, many disconcerting, uncomfortable, and awful daily and historical moments are left out. War does involve perishing, and the narrator reminds us that victims are random. The ones left behind often feel responsible and bad for having escaped it. Guilt and abandonment show up frequently in the novel. However, Liesel's opinion of abandonment shifts slightly as the book, and the war, progresses. She learns that people move through our lives, and a reason for leaving, in certain circumstances, is to protect us. Kindness is also something Liesel gains through bravery of doing the right thing. Of course, she already has some kindness in her, but she borrows some from the friends and family she makes along the way.


Zusak superbly paints his words, and he uses them so well, that The Book Thief may become one of my permanent favorites. I found memorable quotations everywhere without trying, and his characters only improved further along. His writing is comparable to a meal you've been looking forward to, one that will be better, tastier, and something appreciated. First, you'll start to salivate at the idea, then you smell the meal. You take the first bite, and eat voraciously, until you remember that this dinner (or lunch or breakfast) is a priveledge, and then you slow down. Soon, you're full. You sit back and digest, but after a bit, you keep trying to eat again even though it hurts. Even when I put it down, The Book Thief was never far from my mind.

It is a classic to add to the collection of interesting and amazing literature that is essential for not only its timepiece in history, but for the heart. I wouldn't recommend it for very young children, and at times, I found the emotional waters heavy to navigate, even as an adult, or maybe moreso because of adulthood.

However, I think that the audience from that suggestion is wide enough to include anyone who enjoys a whole hearted story of herocism and a reminder that despite all the evil and fear in the world, there are wonderful humans with good intentions.

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