Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The narrator of The Book Thief first encounters the title character in three awful moments when she witnesses a death. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator describes these moments in fragments, focusing on the color of the sky in each moment -- white, black, and red.  The reason he gives for describing these moments this way is that he needs a distraction from his job -- that is, carrying the souls away from human beings when they die.  The novel never describes where these souls may be going or how the narrator came into existence -- save that for a bigger book, say The Bible -- but the wry humor and astute wisdom in the voice of the narration, along with the heart-rending story itself and the numerous insightful descriptions of life, make this a book worth reading.  The setting is Nazi Germany and the title character is a lonely girl who learns to read and write, but please do not confuse this book in any way with the diary of Anne Frank or with typical young adult literature.  The novel avoids the fiction world's formulas and digs deeper into what it meant to be a child in Nazi Germany, even a non-Jewish child, than any fictional work I have read.  It also approaches the concentration camps obliquely and shields young readers in some ways from the worst horrors of that time, as fiction can and non-fiction cannot.  Instead of describing the mass murder in institutional terms, as a non-fiction work might, the novel treats it much more intimately.  The staggering number of souls lost in World War II and the Holocaust (or Shoah, the more appropriate term) is mentioned, but the primary aim of the novel is not to catalog the horrors but to put a human face on the suffering.  Liesel Meminger, the title character, experiences joy, learns to love, and experiences loss, all within the overwhelming presence of Nazi Germany. She learns to fight for herself and her friends, not just with fists but also with words, as well as acts of compassion.  She is a heroine who discovers who she is through language, but it is not an intellectual story -- her first book theft is closely tied to her brother's death, and her adoptive father helps her learn to read it in the middle of the night when she awakes from her nightmares about that death.  The most intense emotions of the story (at least for this reader) come from this father-daughter relationship, but there are many other relationships in the story that pack an emotional punch or reveal some surprising truths.  The narrator is somewhat detached from human emotion, but his observations are coming from the perspective of a reader who has read and re-read Liesel's story, interweaving it with his own.  He has insight into Liesel's story, he is not detached from it, and it is this glue that brings the story to a satisfying close, even in the midst of grief and death.  The novel is highly recommended for those with some understanding of Nazi Germany, although I probably wouldn't use it to introduce the subject to young readers.  A non-fiction work like Night or the diary of Anne Frank might be more appropriate for teens who may not grasp the reasons for the ominous overtones of the novel.
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