Published by Random House Childrens Books on March 14th, 2006
Genres: historical, young adult
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It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.
Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.
In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.
Oooookay. Lili got me good this time. I have to be honest, I was a little bit skeptical about reading The Book Thief because WWII fiction isn’t really my thing. I tend to stay away from both books and movies focusing on that period in our recent history. When focused on the Holocaust, so much of it is just too horrifying and too emotionally draining. When it’s focused on the US, I find it incredibly boring and/or revisionist. And when it’s focused on the politics… well, let’s just say I’m not interesting in humanizing Hitler. Somehow, The Book Thief was able to draw me into its characters’ lives and keep me captivated even though it did not shy away from the horrors of Hitler’s reign. This wasn’t the perfect book, but it was the perfect book to reintroduce me to this time period and open up a world of books I had written off before.
The first thing you need to know about The Book Thief is its massive scope. Because of the unconventional narrator, Death, the book is able to take us through Liesel’s life, but also to a number of locations where the war is taking places. There is a wide breadth of time and geography covered by this novel. We start when Liesel is about ten years old and the main story covers about four years thereafter. But we are also taken back to Papa’s younger days, Max’s life story, and all the way through Liesel’s future. We spend most of our time with Liesel on Himmel Street in Molching, but we also go to Russia, we go to Munich, we visit dozens of smaller German cities. Because we spend so much time with these characters, and go so many places with them, witness so much of their lives, the devastation in this novel goes that much deeper. These are real people living between these pages – not just characters constructed in Zusak’s mind. I keep trying to pick a particular character that pops out more than the other, but I simply can’t. I felt like each and every one of them – Liesel, Rudy, Papa, Rosa, Max – were old friends. People I knew and cared for for years.
The plot of The Book Thief isn’t the most action packed story in the world. There is horror and devastation, though, on every page. But there is a lot of happiness. Stolen moments between the atrocities of the Nazis. This book focuses on those moments, the interactions between the characters. It does start with a slow beginning, but this is with a purpose. Death is slowly building our relationship with these characters, slowly introducing the world that is going to end in just a few hundred pages. I have to admit that the slowness bothered me at first, but the payoff was well worth it. Without all this time spent with these characters, the impact would not have been felt as strongly.
I only have one complaint, and that is with the writing. The book would not be what it is without Death as the narrator. As a simple third person omniscient, a lot of the heart would have been missing. However, Death also intruded way too much into the narrative. He would stop the story to tell us what was going to happen in the future. Basically, the book was spoiling itself. Without those spoilers, maybe the ending would have been even more emotionally jarring (if that’s possible.) Also: the descriptions were so freaking over the top and sometimes they just did not make sense. Here are some examples.
The trees they’d imagined to be swollen with fruit were frail and injured-looking, with only a small array of apples hanging miserly from the branch.
“Miserly”? Really? Is that the best word?
“The biggest one!” one of the women ejaculated.
Are you sure you wanted to use the word “ejaculated”?
Her wrinkles were like slander.
What does that even mean?
As much as I can pick this apart and find quotes I disliked, the writing also had the potential to be stunningly beautiful and even haunting.
I am not violent.
I am not malicious.
I am a result.
A small but noteworthy note:
I’ve seen so many young men
over the years who think they’re
running at other young men.
They are not.
They are running at me.
The Book Thief is the kind of book you need to own, to reread, to randomly pick up from your shelves and leaf through. I can see myself in the future, pulling this book down, opening to any random page, and at once being transported to Himmel Street, Molching, with Liesel and Max. No need for reintroductions. These characters are real to me. Their pain is real, their hope and happiness and love is real. I am so thankful to Lili for forcing this book on me.