I’ve decided to start reviewing books here–at least for as long as it’s summer and I have enough time to read whatever I darn well please. If you find yourself wondering what to read next, give Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief a spin.
At once poetic and straightforward, hilarious and tragic, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (despite the desperate circumstances of its setting) is bound to bring about a strange and unexpected nostalgia for childhood; for those innocent years when you believed nothing truly horrible could ever happen to you, or your friends, or loved ones. This nostalgia does not lose its value even as the innocence of the book’s young characters begins to slowly unpeel.
The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger who, at the story’s outset, is illiterate. Nevertheless, an inexplicable compulsion leads Liesel to steal a book left lying in the snow beside her younger brother’s fresh grave. As it happens, the book is entitled The Gravedigger’s Handbook, and from it, Liesel will learn to read.
Zusak sets The Book Thief in Nazi Germany, with World War II already underway. Although the war is ultimately central to the book’s plot, the opening chapters reveal the deceptive naivete with which Liesel (and her soon-to-be best friend Rudy Steiner) views the world.
Maybe, like me, you’ve read a whole lot of WWII books–so many that you fear the authors have taken the emotion, rawness, and the horrible lessons of that war and wrung them out until there’s nothing new left to be written; until we bookworms have stopped feeling any shock or surprise at anything we read about that particular war and time period. That sort of numbness is a travesty, as books about historical tragedies of immense proportions should never stop shocking us–lest we forget the lessons of history.
Reading The Book Thief proves that there are still authors with something new to say about WWII. Or there’s at least one, anyway, and his name is Martin Zusak.
There is very, very little in this book that could be considered boring, expected, or cliche.
The Book Thief is narrated by the Angel of Death. A gutsy move on Zusak’s part, and it’s a move that works. Moreover, the Angel of Death himself will also surprise you–because he is kind, because he gathers souls with such gentle compassion, and because he is such a precise and gifted narrator.
The Angel was at Liesel’s brother’s graveside, of course, so he witnesses Liesel’s first theft and is instantly intrigued by this girl–so intrigued that he breaks his angel-rules and takes a special interest in one single, living girl.
Shortly after her brother is buried, Liesel reaches her destination: the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who have taken her in as a foster child, presumably because they receive money from the state for doing so. Hans and Rosa defy all cliched expectations.
Zusak’s singular style includes the peppering of each chapter with pronouncements, lists, and explanations that shout at the reader in bold-face print, such as this one:
“Some Facts About Rosa Hubermann:
She was five feet, one inch tall and wore her browny gray strands of elastic hair in a bun … Her cooking was atrocious … She possessed the unique ability to aggravate anyone she ever met. But she did love Liesel Meminger. Her way of showing it just happened to be strange. It involve bashing her with wooden spoon and words at various intervals.”
A character like Rosa Hubermann (who eventually asks Liesel to call her “Mama” from now on) is just one example of the strange, contradictory, and lovable humans who populate the pages of The Book Thief. Just as it is with those people we live with each day in our own lives, her contradictions don’t always make sense, and they are never fully explained: yet Rosa is as believable as any character I’ve met in any great novel, and her love for Liesel Meminger, strange as it may seem, is somehow perfectly understandable in this reader’s eyes.
Among the parade of unforgettable characters who fill these pages, you will meet Hans Hubermann (“Papa”), who plays an accordion in the street, teaches Liesel to read, and works for no pay even when starving; you’ll meet Rudy Steiner, who is repeatedly described as a boy with “hair like a candle flame”–Rudy Steiner, who assists Liesel on her book-stealing errands; Rudy Steiner, who loves Liesel hopelessly; Rudy, who routinely defies the leaders of his Hitler Youth division.
You’ll meet Max Vandenburg, the Jew who has nightmares in tandem with Liesel, and who writes and illustrates beautiful books upon the pages of Mein Kampf, which he has carefully covered in white paint.
And you’ll follow the Angel of Death from place to place as he describes the unspeakable increase in his workload as the war progresses. Never have I “met” an angel so very human as the one who narrates this tale:
“There were broken bodies and dead, sweet hearts … Some of them I caught when they were only halfway down. Saved you, I’d think, holding their souls in midair … All of them were light, like the cases of empty walnuts. Smoky sky in those places. The sky like a stove, but still so cold.
I shiver when I remember–as I try to de-realize it. I blow warm air into my hands, to heat them up. But it’s hard to keep them warm when the souls still shiver. God. I always say that name when I think of it.”
It sounds like a sad book, and it is, but it will also defy your expectations by bringing you moments of laughter. You’ll find that you love the foster mother who swears incessantly at Hans and at Liesel; you’ll find, against all odds, that you love and pity the Angel of Death.
You’ll find yourself crossing your fingers and rooting silently for Liesel each time she slips, shoeless, through a library window to steal another book (one which has likely been banned). You’ll wish, along with Rudy Steiner, that Liesel will grant him that single kiss he so often asks for.
Nazi Germany provides the backdrop of this story–a story which wouldn’t be what it is without this backdrop. Yet somehow, the conflicts played out between, among, and within the unforgettable characters who populate these pages will enthrall you and absorb you even more than the war. In fact, for entire chapters, you may even forget that you’re reading a story set in a city in a country destined to lose the war it perpetuates. You may even forget that the characters you’ve come to love are, each and every day, in grave danger.
This is the forgetting of childhood and adolescence; the forgetting you’ll witness in Liesel, Rudy, and also the adults who live in these pages.
These are characters who will live in your memory as if you knew them in “real life.”
When you travel with the Angel of Death, you are destined to meet tragedy. But in this case, the journey is well worth your while.