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I already realize that my weak and small review will not do enough justice for the book. But bear with me nonetheless.
This book right here is the reason why I chose monthly novel reading as one of my 40 by 40 tasks. This is the reason why I love good writing. What Markus Zusak did with The Book Thief was truly remarkable. I know that books like Harry Potter and Twilight and The Hunger Games dominate the young adult market, but it is refreshing to see that something so profound as The Book Thief has made its way into the top of many young adult bestseller lists. And, from what I gather, the book will also be made into a movie…though I can’t quite see it capturing everything the book has to offer. You see, the book tells the story of the redemptive power of words and the beauty of the human spirit to overcome the bleakest situations.
The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a preteen girl who has been sent to live with foster parents in the pre-WWII years of Nazi Germany. It is Liesel’s coming of age story, and in the small poverty-stricken town of Molching, Germany, with all the death and sadness she experiences, we see Liesel come of age rather quickly. Her younger brother has died, and at the funeral, a small book falls from the pocket of one of the grave diggers. Even though she cannot read, she slyly steals it while no one is looking…and the book thief is born. Her foster father, Hans Hubermann (one of the most endearing characters in the story), eventually teaches Liesel how to read using the grave digger’s book (which, coincidentally, is all about the art and craft of grave digging). As the years go on, Liesel’s passion for reading grows, and we watch as she is transformed (and we see how those around her are transformed) by the power of the written word.
The story is narrated by Death who comes across Liesel’s autobiography after it is lost in the blast of a bomb. He reminisces on the three times that he actually saw her, and those three meetings, along with Liesel’s own words of her own story, give us The Book Thief. Having Death narrate the story was a stroke of genius. Only Death is removed enough to provide a perspective on human behavior that humans themselves are too close to see. Only Death can be both inspired and bewildered by human emotion. And, as Adolf Hitler’s genocidal campaign moves through Europe, it is unique to read Death’s perspective on what it means to die. For instance, in Russia, as Death travelled back and forth collecting souls of dead soldiers, he made the comment “For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to. Perhaps it’s so they can die being right.” Having Death narrate the book allows the author to describe the story with the exactness and detail of the omniscient third-person narrator while freeing him up for the poetry and emotional intimacy of the first-person narrative.
The book is filled with beautiful writing, and it makes me think that the author has a hint of the poet within. He writes sentences such as “As she crossed the river, a rumor of sunshine stood behind the clouds” and as Rosa (Liesel’s foster mother) prayed for God to bring the men back home, the author writes that “even the wrinkles around her eyes were joining hands.”
I often reminded myself that this is considered a children’s book (according to the New York Times, The Book Thief will sit at #1 on the Children’s Paperback Best Sellers list for April 8, 2012. That will make it a solid 237 weeks on the best sellers list.) At first, I wondered exactly how appropriate this book is for children. Then I asked myself the same question about the Twilight series (which I have not read…so that may not be entirely fair of me) or the Harry Potter series (which I have read). I’m an optimist, and I’m concluding that if the success of The Book Thief can be attributed to the reading habits of today’s young folk (rather than
old… aging…wiser folk like myself), then I have a bit more confidence in our youngsters.