Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Book Thief

The Book Thief is an amazing book. It is really and truly wonderful. It’s one of those books with which I so thoroughly identify and which I so enormously appreciated that I wish that I had written it. If you haven’t read it, go out and buy it or check it out of the library right now! Yes, I do genuinely mean this. And no, I am not engaging in gratuitous hyperbole by evoking all of these fluffy adjectives and trite expressions. I realize that it is a growing trend these days to qualify anything and everything as unbelievable, amazing or incredible to the –nth degree. In this case, however, a state of wonder and amazement is a quite appropriate description of my reaction to this book.

From the Oxford-English Dictionary:
Amazement, noun. 1. gen. Loss of one's wits or self-possession; mental stupefaction; bewilderment, perplexity; 2. spec. Overwhelming fear or apprehension; 3. spec. Overwhelming wonder, extreme astonishment.
Related words: admiration, awe, bewilderment, marvel, wonder, wonderment

Wonder, marvel and admiration are precisely what I felt while reading Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. This seems fitting, for the author is trying to remind us of the wonder and marvel that so often passes unseen in our daily lives.

The Book Thief is narrated by Death, but Markus Zusak depicts him not as a gloomy, frightening grim reaper-type character. Rather, Death is an acutely sensitive, meticulous observer of humans. He does not seek victims, but simply does his job, collecting souls once their bodies expire and recounting with tender wonderment the circumstances of the event, the opportunities missed, the genuine, unbridled emotions as those close to the deceased (which Death terms “leftover humans” and “the ones who are left behind”) react to their loss. The narrator punctuates the story with brief interventions, offering dictionary definitions in the style of mine above, descriptions of his observations or background information about the characters or the situation. Death seems to crave the experiences of the Living and their glorious vitality; he describes the world in wistful detail, with poignant analogies and vivid colors. Death depicts a scream as “dribbling down the air,” a leaf as “dry and hard, like toasted bread,” darkness “stride[s] forward,” words “fell like injuries from his mouth,” or are “stranded on the paper, beaten down for her to walk on,” sometimes even “like waves, breaking on her back.”

Words are, in fact, at the crux of this story. Words have power: power to harm, power to enchant, power to protect, to facilitate escape or to divert, to record and to affirm one’s thoughts, the very essence of our existence. Hitler, the Fürher (leader) as he is referred to in the book, controlled Nazi Germany with words, labeling its citizens and programming their conceptions of one another. Liesel Meminger, our young orphaned protagonist, has a fascination for words. Her mother, a suspected communist in Nazi Germany, delivers Liesel to a foster family (Hans and Rosa Hubermann) on Himmel Street in Molching, a small town in the outskirts of Munich, but her deep curiosity for books and their stories propels her through this and other tragic events. Death intervenes to describe her foster parents:

He loved to smoke.
The main thing he enjoyed about smoking
was the rolling.
He was a painter by trade and played the piano
accordion. This came in handy, especially in winter,
when he could make a little money playing in the pubs
of Molching, like the Knoller.
He had already cheated me in one world war but
would later be put into another (as a perverse
kind of reward), where he would somehow
manage to avoid me again.

She was five feet, one inch tall and wore her
browny gray strands of elastic hair in a bun.
To supplement the Hubermann income, she did
the washing and ironing for five of the wealthier households in Molching.
Her cooking was atrocious.
She possessed the unique ability to aggravate almost anyone she ever met.
But she did love Liesel Meminger.
Her way of showing it just happened to be strange.
It involved bashing her with wooden spoon and words at various intervals.

Words, books and stories are Liesel’s sustenance; learning to read and then, to write, is as life-altering for Liesel as are the political changes in the world around her. Before even acquiring these skills, Liesel is enthralled simply by the material nature of books, a black cover with silver words embossed across the front: The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Liesel picks up the book left behind in the snow by a young boy who had dug her brother’s grave, concealing it from her mother and later hiding it under her mattress in her new foster home and earning her Death’s moniker for her, The Book Thief. It is her papa, Hans Hubermann, who gives her the gift of words by teaching her the alphabet and how its sounds combine to form meanings, sentences and stories. These lessons begin as a cure for Liesel’s nightmares about her brother’s death and develop into a healthy obsession that becomes a cure for the larger ills of her war torn world. Liesel reads to people in order to share this ephemeral joy—she reads to the Jew whom the Hubermann’s are hiding in their basement and who becomes her great friend, she reads to a neighbor who grieves for her dead son, she reads to her friends and their parents who seek shelter from air raids in a basement.

Liesel’s life essentially begins when she learns to read The Grave Digger’s Handbook, a narrative about death. Likewise, Death finds some semblance of life through his narrative about Liesel reading. The Book Thief is a story about Liesel, but it also is a primer of life’s simple joys and the importance of human kindness, a reminder from Death that in life one can find infinite treasures even in the smallest, most unlikely, unexpected or insignificant places, objects, events and people. The world is an open book, a cabinet of curiosities (like the one to the right) in which words allow us to share our wonder.

Someone whose advice I deeply respect told me recently that it is important to find moments to act childlike (though preferably, not childish), in order to rediscover the world through innocent, naïve eyes, as if seeing things for the first time. Liesel’s story can help us to recapture this sensation and to bear in mind that life’s journeys are just as rich and important as the end result. Life is beautiful. Even when bombs are falling, books are being burned and everything seems hopeless. Even then, there is beauty just waiting for someone to notice.


3M said...

Wasn't this book wonderful. In my top 3 of the year so far.

Excellent review!

Wendy said...

Fabulous review, Kelly! Not only has this book made my #1 read for 2007, but it tops my top ten list of all time best books read. A book I will re-read at some point - and one I've already recommended to dozens of my friends and co-workers!

Bookgirl said...

I have this one on my stack and will be getting to it soon. It's one of my reads for a book group meeting next month. I can't wait!

Great review!

Kelly said...

Thank you 3m and Wendy! This is one of my favorite books of all time, too. I'm already buying copies to give as birthday and Christmas presents. I would like to re-read it in order to really savor it. I devoured it the first time.

Iliana, I hope that you enjoy this one as much as I did. I can't wait to hear what you think!

Maggie said...

Kelly, I wrote an article for the newpapers on this one, and was shocked when a business man in town said he read it and loved it. He looked like the James Patterson/Lee Child type, thus my shock.

Did you know it was originally written for adults in Australia and his publisher suggested they try the YA route in America?