The Book Thief

02Apr11

When the narrator of the novel is Death, it’s hard to imagine that all will end well.

1st edition cover from Wikipedia

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is narrated by Death and takes place in Germany between 1939 and 1945. True, Death plays a major role in the story and the times, but the protagonist is Liesel Meminger, who becomes the book thief, and eventually writes her own story. The Book Thief won the 2007 Printz Award, among others.

I should tell you that, like The Life of Pi (and here), this is really a literary novel rather than a children’s or YA book. Like The Life of Pi, a thoughtful young adult would read it and might fall in love with it. But this is a book that is more concerned with its characters and their inner lives than with philosophy and layered meaning, and thus is a better book than The Life of Pi (to me)–not that there are not such layers, just that the characters are more fully realized, as opposed to being  ciphers whose actions are determined by the needs of the allegory. Liesel Meminger is neither saint nor sinner, but an 11-ish girl as the story begins.

Briefly, Liesel’s brother dies on the train to Molching, a suburb of Munich, as their mother takes him and Liesel to meet their foster family. Liesel’s father was a communist and her mother is in trouble with the Nazi party. Her brother is buried, and Liesel picks up a book that was left in the snow in the graveyard, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. She and her mother continue to Molching, where she is left with her foster family, the Hubermans. Hans Huberman, her foster father with silver eyes, is a house painter. He sits with her during her nightmares, over and over again. He listens, he tells stories and eventually teaches her to read from The Grave Digger’s Handbook, writing the difficult words in paint on the basement wall. Liesel’s foster mother, Rosa, is short and square like a bureau, wrinkled, and has “elastic hair.” She swears and berates all those she loves, and loves them fiercely.

Episodes here ring true. Liesel can’t read as well as other kids because she hasn’t been in school. She wants to read with other kids during the test so she won’t allow the teacher to leave her out, and humiliates herself when she can’t read the passage the teacher gives her. Later, the other kids tease her on the playground and she beats up one of her tormentors. Rudy Steiner, one of the children in the class, falls for her and in the fashion of fifth grade crushes everywhere, asks her for a kiss when he’s done something nice for her. Together they play soccer, they steal apples and steal books and watch the world change. They find the dying pilot of an enemy plane and Rudy leaves a teddy bear on his chest before the crowd gathers. Liesel and Rudy are best friends, but she only grants his kiss near the end of the book when she finds his broken body on the ground after Himmel Street is bombed and Death is holding Rudy’s soul.

Max Vandenburg, the Jewish boxer. Max’s father, in the random fashion fate reserves for war, saved Hans Huberman’s life during World War I, and he was the man who taught Hans to play the accordion. Hans tried to return the accordion to Max’s mother after the war and promised to do anything he could to help. He left her with his name and address. Years later, after Hitler’s rise to power, that scrap of paper with Hans’s address became Max Vandenburg’s only hope of survival in the hostile country which had once been his home. He made his way there, lived in their basement and took up where Hans had left off teaching Liesel the power of words, the power of story to shape a life, to weave hope, to keep a person alive. Near the end of the story Liesel tells Rudy about Max.

Years ago, when they’d raced on a muddy field, Rudy was a hastily assembled set of bones with a jagged, rocky smile. In the trees this afternoon, he was a giver of bread and teddy bears. He was a triple Hitler Youth athletics champion. He was her best friend. And he was a month from his death.

“Of course I told him about you,” Liesel said.

She was saying goodbye and she didn’t even know it.

I won’t go further with the synopsis, since I want to stop and talk about some of the things I love about the book and about why the choice of Death as the narrator.

First, Death. Death tells us, by his presence and from the first scenes of the book–the death of Liesel’s brother and his burial and the title of the first book Liesel steals–that Death will be close to Liesel throughout the story. We know that this will be a tale of loss, of grief. That it turns out also to be a story of hope and growth and the triumph of what is good and human is something we have to learn by reading the book.

Ren, in The Good Thief (and here) and Katniss, in the Hunger Games trilogy (and here), both lose as much as Liesel does . . . family and home and loves . . . but the feel of The Book Thief is different. Part of that difference is the choice of Death as narrator: when characters die there is a sense that someone, something cares, that there is an end of a story, and that Death, in fact, knows the story whether it makes sense or not. Whether the death of the individual was in any way coherent or meaningful, Death knows that it happened and in some sense, the universe cares. The deaths here are foreshadowed. Death knows they will happen and tells the story knowing. As they happen, he tells us the color of the sky and the light.

I’ll end with a little of what I love about the book.

This book is, among many other things (e.g. a brilliant anti-war novel, an allegory about the power of story, and an old-fashioned story about the redemptive power of love), the story of a very small community in Germany under the rule of a psychopath. And yet, there is no sense of anachronism in the attitudes of the characters; no one seems to be viewing the present from the vantage point of history.

Good people are good people, and some people believe what they’re told, some don’t. Few characters in this novel are cardboard cutouts. There is always the possibility for redemption here. Some characters are capable of being redeemed, some try but fail. Life here is hard, the choices have terrible and sometimes all-too-immediate consequences. Most struggle to stay alive, but all struggle to stay human.

Highly recommended. Adult and YA.

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One Response to “The Book Thief”

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