Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Book Thief: Resistance is Futile

After being sickened by the last book I attempted to read about Jews and Nazis in WWII (The True Story of Hansel and Gretel), I unknowingly picked up another book on the same subject. Naturally, I approached the new book -- Markus Zusak's The Book Thief -- with caution. After the first chapter, however, I was so thoroughly captured that Adolf Hitler himself couldn't have pulled the book away from me. The story is that mesmerizing, that powerful.

The Book Thief boasts a unique narrator - Death - who tells the story of young Liesel Meminger. Liesel's tale begins with a train ride to Munich, where she and her brother will be placed in a foster home. Her father has long since disappeared, the whispered label of "Communist" lingering in his wake, and her mother is too poor and sickly to care for her children. Thus, the kids are shipped to Munich, where they will be delivered to The Hubermanns, their new foster parents. The journey, however, proves too difficult for the boy; our narrator is soon on the scene to collect his delicate soul. His funeral is a cold, dismal affair. However, the event saves Liesel, offering her a gift: a small, black book falls from the pocket of an apprentice grave digger. Snatching it up, Liesel pockets the treasure. Now alone, Liesel is desposited on the Hubermanns doorstep in Molching, where she begins an innocuous new life. Liesel's foster parents - Rosa and Hans - take to the child in their own, enigmatic ways. Rosa, a wardrobe-shaped woman sporting a "face decorated with constant fury," (33) swears and berates the child, abuses Liesel recognizes belatedly as affectionate. Hans, a man who appears "Not noticeable. Not important or particularly valuable" (34), becomes Liesel's savior. His quiet ways soothe her, especially when she "nightmares" about her dead brother. At these times, he sits quietly at her bedside, and it is then that Liesel begs him to read her stolen book to her. Hans is "not such a good reader myself" (65), so he instead teaches her how to read. This feat ignites a fire in Liesel, a passion for books and their words. Like everyone else on Himmel Street, the Hubermanns are poor and cannot afford books. So, Liesel begins accumulating them in the only way she can - stealing. She rescues one from a Nazi book-burning, lifts several from the mayor's library, and even receives a couple as gifts. It is only when Liesel begins sharing the books, however, that she realizes their true power. One of the most vivid scenes in the book occurs when Liesel is reading to a group of neighbors huddled in a bomb shelter:

"She didn't dare to look up, but she could feel their frightened eyes hanging on to her as she hauled the words in and breathed them out. A voice played the notes inside her. This, it said, is your accordion.

The sound of the turning page carved them in half.

Liesel read on." (381)

As bombs rain down on Molching, Liesel sees the power of words - to enliven a beaten Jew; to comfort a grieving mother; to calm the fears of her friends; to incite a nation to imprison its own; to maim; to hurt; to kill. When Liesel realizes the strength of her own words, she begins to write, a task which saves her life and touches even Death.

As fascinating as Liesel's life is, it is really only a backdrop for Markus Zusak's sermon on the power of words to influence for good and evil. He purports that Hitler seduced his people with words, writing:

"Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. 'I will never fire a gun,' he devised. 'I will not have to.' Still...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." (445)

The Book Thief contains countless references to words both said and unsaid. I think I could write an entire thesis on this subject alone.

Another fascinating aspect of the book is the way it personifies Death. His character is both arrogant and humble, angry and humorous, hard-nosed and compassionate, interested and dispassionate. In short, he is as realistic - as human, if you will - as the rest of the absorbing cast.

Not only does The Book Thief contain layer after layer of thought-provoking ideas, but it is a compelling story to boot. Its unique format makes it accessible, humorous and impactful without being sentimental or sappy. It's pitch-perfect with exquisitely-crafted sentences and paragraphs. It will suck you in and spit you out only when it's through with you. Resistance is futile - succumb to the magic of this incredible tale.

9 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this when I read it to! I really should hurry up and write my review!

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  2. I thought it was an amazing book. I don't think my review did it justice! I look forward to reading yours.

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  3. Hey, nice of you to pop by. I love getting new visitors. It's also nice to have more stay-home-moms reading out there...

    I really need to read this one. Soon. I'm beginning to feel like the last person on earth who hasn't read it...

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  4. I didn't catch this when I read the book last year, but Rosa, Hans, and Liesel live on Himmel Street. Himmel = Heaven.

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  6. Bybee - I think the Himmel/heaven thing was explained in the beginning of the book. At any rate, it's an interesting name - so appropriate in some ways, so ironic in others.

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  7. I'm not a stay at home mom.
    I'm a freshman honors english student. At first I was not to sure weither or not I was going to enjoy another assigned reading book that delt with the Holocaust.
    Soon into the book, I realized how wrong I was. This book was one of the greatest books I have ever read. Markus Zusak is my favorite author. The "narrator" made sense of so many things and made this a very enjoyable book. Everyone should read this book at some point.

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  8. Sam - I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I remember hating reading for an assignment rather than for pleasure. What did the rest of your class think? Did everybody love it? It's such a great book.

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  9. "The Book Thief" was the first fiction selection I'd ever read about the Holocaust. I teach history including WWII each year and find it hard to do much more with the difficult subject than I do so I normally shut it out the rest of the year. But I loved the book and also the audio book. The movie was fine but a bit too pretty I thought. I'm sure there were sunny days and lovely children in Nazi Germany, but Liesl just looked too perfect and not bleak like in my mind reading the book. Enjoy your blog!

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