Minute Marginalia

Friday, September 28, 2007


I really hadn’t planned on reading or blogging about two WWII novels back-to-back. (In fact, when I first saw the cover of this book, I mistook the parachutes for flying saucers and was thus a bit surprised to find it set in WWII.) Still, Mal Peet’s Tamar, winner of the Carnegie Medal (Britain’s equivalent of the Newbery), was too good not to write about.

Peet uses two linked story lines to narrate this story of secrets. The book opens in 1979, when a father suggests Tamar as a name for his son’s first child. Although the older man has never talked about his time with the SOE, he now volunteers the information that agents in his group all received code names using British rivers – thus, Tamar. Later, when the son’s wife announces the baby’s name during a family dinner, her mother-in-law, Marijke, drops the serving plate.

Shift to 1944, with Tamar and his wireless operator Dart hoping to evade the Germans as they parachute into the Netherlands to work with the Dutch resistance. Tamar’s cover as Christiaan Boogart, a farm worker, allows him to stay with the woman he loves – Marijke – and her mute grandmother on a farm. Dart, disguised as a doctor, is seeing the area for the first time. His base will be the town’s asylum – perhaps an ironic choice considering the mental strains wireless operators endured and the problems that will occur when Dart constructs an imagined romance.

At first, plans advance smoothly and the story remains that of WWII espionage, focusing on the clandestine efforts of the resistance and the challenges of life in an occupied country. Complications set in: Tamar has been sent to unite the various factions of the Dutch Resistance, and some resist his attempts to control them. Moreover, Tamar and Marijke have kept their relationship hidden, and Dart has fallen in love with Marijke, believing the feelings are reciprocal.

Shift to 1995, as sixteen-year-old Tamar ponders her grandfather’s apparent suicide. Opening a box he has left her, she discovers an odd collection of items – a half-finished crossword puzzle the two had worked on together, Ordnance Survey maps of the Tamar River, 1,945 pounds in bills of assorted denominations, an old photograph of two young men, and a foreign passport for Christiaan Boogart. She understands he’s left her a puzzle to solve – but not the what or why. Aided by a Dutch friend, she begins a journey to the places marked on the maps. Chapters charting their discoveries as they follow the Tamar River to its source alternate with a different type of revelations in 1945, when unfortunate timing and a rash move by one defiant Resistance group – and the exposure of certain secrets -- bring destruction and death.

Although some of the grandfather’s secrets weren’t hard to penetrate, the story was still compelling, and the use of the contemporary plot interwoven with the WWII story made the latter particularly effective. (This dual narrative – story in the present containing the outcome of tale from the past – seems quite popular for WWII juvenile and YA fiction: Jane Yolen’s Devil’s Arithmetic and Briar Rose, and, more recently, Jackie French’s Hitler’s Daughter. Is this technique another way of reinforcing that the past and present are connected – or is there something in particular about WWII that inspires it?)

Possible spoilers and some musings on the oddities of American publishing: The British edition I read, issued by Walker Books, is subtitled “A Novel of Secrecy and Survival” – a perfect description of the core of this story – the unifying element and the ironic/heart-breaking one. The edition in my local bookstore and on Amazon, however, has a new subtitle “A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal” – thus practically giving away a major plot twist. I find myself wondering – did the US publisher feel that American readers wouldn’t be able to anticipate later plot developments and thus needed to be prepared for the outcome? Or, as with Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s/Philosopher’s Stone, were they afraid that without an extra hint of drama (and, in this case, romance), the book wouldn’t sell? (And is there really such a difference between readers in the two countries?)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Book Thief

Computer problems and assorted commitments and complications have kept me away from blogging for far longer than intended. I'm trying to get back into the habit again. (we'll see...), starting with the best book I’ve read this year

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (not to be confused with the Travis McDade work with the same title) has been attracting a lot of attention, and justifiably so. Published an adult title in Zusak’s native Australia, but as a YA novel in the US, it was an Honor Book for the 2007 Printz Award and made the Best of 2006 lists for almost every review journal (Horn Book, School Library Journal, Publishers’ Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books…).

Death is the narrator in this tale of ten-year-old Liesel Meminger and her life in Nazi Germany. Taken in by foster parents (her own father was a communist and her mother is terminally ill), Liesel is plagued by nightmares about her younger brother’s death, but ultimately comforted by her foster father Hans and their late-night reading sessions. That their book of choice is the first one she stole, The Grave Digger’s Handbook (which dropped unnoticed in the cemetery when her brother was buried), is perhaps a first indicator of a theme in the novel, that good and evil are interwoven, and that fate – coincidence and timing – continually affects our lives.

Over time, Liesel gains friends and allies, all connected in some way with books – and, usually, with death: Rudy, the boy down the street with whom she forms a friendship verging on romance, strengthened by their mutual thefts of food and fiction; the mayor’s wife, ever-silent and ever-grieving her own dead child, who lets Liesel steal from her library; Max, a young Jewish man hiding in Liesel’s foster parents’ basement, tormented by nightmares of his less fortunate family. In one of the most extraordinary segments, Max creates a book for Liesel, using painted-over pages from Mein Kampf for paper. (And, as an added touch, those pages in The Book Thief are designed so that faint text from Mein Kampf is visible in spots under Max’s handwritten story.)

Like many other novels about the war, Zusak’s suggests that at certain times traditional values and logical expectations may vanish or be overridden: Theft is wrong – except, in this case, not only does it bring Liesel comfort and allow her to form bonds, but it also ultimately helps numerous others, especially those to whom she reads. Deception becomes the norm – whether it means concealing someone in a basement to save his life or stealing food to supplement meager rations. A chance remark can save a life – or destroy it -- and a parent’s action hoping to protect a child can be rendered useless with one stroke of fate.

Predictably, The Book Thief is also about books, writing, inscribing and re-inscribing, leaving one’s mark – painting words on a basement wall when learning to read, hiding messages in Mein Kampf, covering over the pages of one book for space to tell another story. Books become lifelines (in more ways than one) – though they can’t save everyone.

Early on, death tells the outcome of the plot – which seems fitting, for (as he also notes), we all know the ending anyway – it’s what happens before we get there that matters, and in this book that becomes a moving, enthralling tale.

An excerpt is online at Random House’s website.