By: Markus Zusak
Date Finished: 07.22.13
As a witness to all the worst atrocities throughout history, Death is looking for some, well, humanity in humanity. Death himself finds hope in the story of a young girl living in Nazi Germany at the precipice of World War II. Liesel Meminger is sent away from home to live with foster parents, gentle Hans and roaring Rosa Huberman. She is grieving for her brother and doesn’t understand the fear gripping her country, but she is a fighter and takes to her new life with a fierce fearlessness. She finds power in the written word and her love affair with books shapes her relationship with the entire town, earning her the respect of many. In a time when kindness is a dangerous quality, the books give her an escape from the terrors around her and hope for something better.
This book is truly a masterpiece. Zusak doesn’t mask the horror of the times, but it is at its heart a story of hope and goodness. It helps that the events are seen from a child’s perspective. Liesel doesn’t understand the politics happening around her; she just knows enough to navigate interactions with people in her neighborhood. As she gets older, she learns more about what the government is doing and must come to terms with her place in it all. She carries much weight on her shoulders, but retains a child-like naivety and sense of justice that is beautiful. With Death as the narrator, there’s an even further degree of separation. He has no influence on the events, therefore no investment in them, and a has much more impassive view on death in general (naturally). Death also has no need to stick to conventional storytelling techniques, so the foreshadowing tends to be very direct (“if so-and-so had made a different choice, he wouldn’t have died so young” — that sort of thing). Zusak is careful not to overuse this power, making the moments of blatant foreshadowing a success. So while it is a dark story by necessity, the narration of Liesel + Death provide a perfect perspective.
Formatting also plays a major role in this book. It is divided into several parts, each part with a unique title, featuring a list of seemingly unconnected phrases. These phrases turn into chapters (sometimes the chapter title is pulled directly from the list, but not always) and a logic emerges. Within the text, there are short interruptions that relate to the story, but break the rhythm of the paragraphs. These are bolded, centered, given wide margins, and titled. The titles serve as an introduction: “A SMALL FACT” or “REACTION TO THE AFOREMENTIONED FACT” or “A DEFINITION” etc. with very few (if any) repeated phrases. The fact or definition or whatever is briefly given and the story continues in its regularly formatted programming. While these break away pieces disrupt the flow of the story, they also enhance it in a rather fascinating way.
This captivating storytelling would be nothing without a good story to back it up. I haven’t read or watched much about Nazi Germany outside of class assignments, so the majority of my exposure follows the plights of the Jews in Concentration Camps. The Book Thief gives a different tale — the plight of an average German family who is trying to survive without surrendering to the Fuhrer. This book explores the need for compromises in public and private rebellions to preserve their convictions. More than that, it’s the chronicle of a town’s life. It’s the story of inseparable friends, of shifting alliances, and of deep-rooted rivalries. All the characters that comprise the town have specific beliefs, quirks, and ingrained patterns. As the war draws nearer, patterns begin to break down in fascinating and deeply realistic ways. And it’s Liesel with her books that hold what’s left together.
At the end of the day: Really, really for me