rating: 5 of 5 stars
World War II is associated with many things: Nazis, Hitler, Pearl Harbor, the atomic bomb, the Holocaust--a lens of persecutors and endless victims. Very rarely do these experiences and tragedies come to us from the perspective of Nazi Germany. Would we feel a little bit like villains or traitors if we chose to listen to the other side or would we feel the scope of the war on an even more massive scale such a perspective could provide us? In a refreshing (albeit sober) presentation, Markus Zusak chose a neutral narrator to speak to us from deep in the heart of Germany. Who better to know every side of a multi-national war than the one who sees all sides, one who isn’t prejudiced, one whose job it is to always be there in the end for all of us? Who better than Death?
Death is a weary and exhausted narrator. Constantly confronted with the highs and terrible lows of humanity, this full range spectrum offers a never-ending work day and insures a distinct lack of vacation time. To accommodate this, Death routinely interrupts the rigorous schedule of collecting the souls of the dead with as many distractions as possible. Colors are high on the list of favorites; in the context of the narrative, such concentrations appear poetic. There are even entire blocks of text bolded to denote their difference and perhaps, their significance in the existence of one worker who never stops.
Death’s reprieves are additions that add a unique perspective and commentary to the narrative of Liesel’s life. They also serve as plot devices, sometimes foreshadowing events and spoiling certain endings, but always in the spirit of Death as a character--one who frequently loses track of time and the significance we as humans attach to chronological events. Despite this, Death is a narrator with a heart and so touched with Lisel’s life, determines to explicate her traumas and joys as she might have: with a story read chapter by chapter, with a beginning, middle, and an end.
Eleven-year-old Liesel Meminger arrives at 33 Himmel (Heaven in German) Street and is coaxed into her new foster home by Hans “Papa” Hubermann. Fresh off the train and still in shock over her brother’s death on the same journey, overwhelmed with the sudden loss of her mother and home, she is ragged and scared. Worst of all is the thunderous mountain that is Rosa Hubermann, her foster mother. As Liesel quickly finds out, Rosa is more bark than bite and warms up to her sharp tongue and ill manners. Unfortunately, adjusting to her new family is the most immediate, but least daunting task ahead of her. The year is 1939 and Hitler is in office. German patriotism runs high and slandering of Jewish shops and citizens is a high priority. As one character puts it:
[…:]the Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. […:] His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.
He planted them day and night, and cultivated them.
He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany . . . It was a nation of farmed thoughts.
-The Book Thief, paperback edition p.445
In a country as saturated as this, Death discovers--literally and figuratively--a strip of Heaven in the middle of a country preparing itself for air raids, marching soldiers into the cold of Stalingrad, stealing honest men, women, and children from their homes, their lives and depositing them into concentration camps. Liesel and her Papa nurture a secret rebellion as potent as and counteractive to Hitler’s garden: compassion and sympathy for the plight of the Jewish people. They harbor more than simply fellow feelings and extend the sanctuary of Liesel’s home to Max Vandenburg, the Jewish son of a man Hans knew in the Great War.
Max reclaims the number thirteen for luck, hides in a German home, and has a copy of Mein Kampf to thank for his survival in a novel filled with surprising incongruities. With Max, Liesel develops a wonderfully enriching relationship. She practices the art of reading, the discovery of words and their meanings with him as she grows in confidence from her late night tutorial sessions with Papa. He has taught her how to read after discovering a book in her possession, one stolen from the site of her brother’s grave and the first in a long line of books taken to quench her thirst for reading. This compulsion coincides beautifully with that of her friend and neighbor, Rudy Steiner, who has a penchant for stealing what he considers more worthwhile: food.
Altogether, the characters nourish each other’s souls. Max and Liesel share the burden of each other’s nightmares; Rudy and Liesel share childhood and misadventure; Papa, Rosa, and Liesel create another family to support one another’s secrets. It was hard not to like any one of these characters, but my favorite is Rudy. He is the model of perseverance, never faltering in his quest to get a kiss out of Liesel.
The Book Thief is powerful and moving, like no other World War II novel I’ve read so far; I don’t think it’s intended to be similar to anything else. Zusak’s narrative is very deliberate in movement, mirroring the conscious decisions of Death’s carefully constructed story-telling. The writing is at times poetic, but always accessible. If periodically it reads too much in the details and exposition, it’s only because we are constantly reminded of Death’s necessary vacations of distraction. We, too, must travel the scenic route to experience Liesel’s life as Death has.
The ups and downs along Death’s windy narrative are testament to the enduring sweetness and stability of the human spirit, able to withstand its own horrors, contain its sorrows, and nurse its wounds in the same body as can burst with happiness and exude tenderness. The journey to the end of the book is a reconciliation and an acknowledgment in the ability of humanity to persevere and survive in spite of the worst of circumstances. And, perhaps, show us that “enemy” is a nebulous and subjective distinction.
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