Monday, April 18, 2011

The Book Thief

March, 2011

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published 2005, 576 pages

The most notable aspect of this fantastic YA historical fiction is that the narrator is Death or the Grim Reaper or whatever force might be responsible for collecting the souls of the dead. This version of Death can anticipate death so that he (?) can be there at the right moment, although he is so busy in Nazi Germany and the surrounding areas that he is often overwhelmed by the numbers of souls to which he must minister. Zusak is creative and consistent in building Death's character, although it is never quite clear what purpose he serves other than the important one of honing perspective to the mind-boggling casualties. An adult reader, just as rapt as a young adult might be with the story of orphan Liesel in her new foster home in Molching, Germany, will likely appreciate the novelty of Death narrating, especially as a means to attract young readers. This Death is hip and raw, yet measured and feeling. Some of Zusak's most beautiful and incisive language comes when Death speaks to the reader.

There are stretches where Death's narrative voice all but vanishes, which is easy to do because the plot itself is riveting. Zusak's characterization, whether is it rebellious Liesel or her wildly contrasting new parents or her best friend Rudy, is crisp and tangible. As these people deal with the encroachment of fascism and the expectation of complicity, their relationships, despite most characters' emotions being kept close to their chests, will bring readers to their knees.

At its very heart, The Book Thief is about telling stories and reading as a means of edification and escape. Liesel steals books to read, but each book serves as a tool for understanding and reflection. Each book tells a story just like her experience with each book tells a story. This pattern never feels forced, however; Zusak's sensitive incorporation of the thefts and Liesel's reading of the books does not feel like a ploy but an opportunity and release from whatever her ache might be. 

Having read a good deal of Holocause literature, I appreciated very much the perspective of the non-Nazi German and the moments of kindness and moral fortitude found there. For me, this book helps to round out my understanding of what happened during that dark time and how people from all angles were exploited, coerced, and annihilated. 

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