Monday, December 29, 2008

#30 - "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak

I'm feeling a little spoiled because I haven't read two such good books in a row for a long time. Actually, I started this book a little hesitantly. All I had heard was that The Book Thief (2006) by Markus Zusak was an excellent "young adult" novel. I assumed from the title that it would be some kind of fun mystery/adventure, so I was a little surprised to discover that it actually took place during World War II in Germany. And it looked downright lengthy. I wasn't particularly looking forward to the depression of reading about war and suffering for over 500 pages, but I had already checked it out of the library, so I gave it a shot.

And I really liked it. I kind of wish I had bought this book because I honestly don't want to give it back. Maybe it helped that I had low expectations, but I got so attached to the characters I couldn't put the book down, and then it broke my heart in such a tragic, bittersweet, unsentimental way that it's now imprinted on my psyche.

The story surrounds Liesel Meminger, a nine-year-old girl, who is delivered by her mother to Molching, Germany and her new foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann in the late 1930's. Her younger brother dies on the train ride to Molching, which is Death's first interaction with the little girl. Besides the fact that her father is a "Kommunist," it is unclear both to Liesel and the reader exactly how and why she ended up a foster child in Molching, but it is clear that her mother cannot care for her and that she is completely alone.

The rest of the story deals with the relationships Liesel makes in Molching, a small town near Munich. Liesel immediately bonds with the patient and sweet Hans Hubermann when he sits with her through her nightmares and teaches her how to read. Her foster mother, Rosa Hubermann is boorish and profane but cares for Liesel in her own way. Liesel also befriends Rudy Steiner, her next door neighbor, and over the years they develop the sweetest young relationship that is coarse, realistic, and incredibly caring. They understand and support each other while stealing food and books, playing soccer, and dealing with the effects of the war. Without a thought Rudy jumps into a freezing river in the middle of Winter to rescue a lost book. His actions, and his knowledge of how much that book means to Liesel, more accurately describe their relationship than any words they ever speak to each other. In addition, Hans Hubermann eventually brings Max Vandenburg, a Jew in hiding, to live in their basement, and Liesel and Max quickly become friends over their shared nightmares and love of words.

This story is narrated by Death, a figure that has to take the souls of the dead away, which happens quite often during that time. Death is partially distracted from this dreary work by the little girl he sees on the train and pays attention when he spots her a couple more times in subsequent years. Death is the perfect narrator as he tells the personal story of Liesel Meminger because he automatically brings a broader perspective that makes it easier to see Liesel's story in the context of World War II. Zusak manages to make an endearing story about a little girl in a small, idiosyncratic German town as well as explore the themes of war, the Holocaust, death, love, both the negative and positive extremes of human action, and the power of words.

1 comment:

Marra Alane said...

I love the idea of death as a narrator - that sounds really interesting. And, as always, excellent review!