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.