Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Book Thief

"I'm always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both."
-The Book Thief's narrator, Death

I'm not really sure that I will ever be able to adequately describe my feelings for The Book Thief. If I consider the impact this book has had on my life and the ways in which I live and love, it's easily one of the top three books I have ever read.

As a World War II historian, I know full well the horrors of war. And unlike many of the people in my collegiate courses who more interested in the battles and strategic decisions that propelled the bombing of cities and attacks of naval bases, I studied the sociological and cultural implications of those on the Home Front.

I read memoirs and newspaper articles. I read accounts of life in Germany, Poland, Great Britain, and Austria. I read about rationing and bomb shelters. I read survivor's stories of the brutality and inhumanity of the concentration camps. I read about Jewish children, saved from certain death and sent to live with foster families in Great Britain, who never saw their parents again.

But even reading the true accounts of what ordinary people experienced on the European Home Front could not have prepared me for this electrifying story by Markus Zusak.

How can you simultaneously love and hate a book? How can you crave each word, each upcoming sentence, yet curse those words for making you cry? Brilliant, thoughtful, imaginative writing has the power to do these things. It is strong enough to keep the pages turning, even when the reader knows what lurks around the next corner.

For Liesel Meminger, life has changed drastically. Her mother has made the decision to surrender Liesel and her brother into foster care.

Her brother doesn't last the train ride.

Near her brother's freshly dug grave, Liesel notices a book, lying in the snow. At the last possible minute, she snatches The Grave Digger's Handbook. This single act of thievery will define her young life.

She arrives on Himmel Street, in Molching, and meets her foster parents. Rosa Huberman is a large, foreboding woman, strict from her first words to Liesel and quick to insults. Her contrast is her husband, the kind, warm-hearted Hans, who takes an instant liking to Liesel and teaches her to read the beloved books she steals.

The Book Thief is the story of a young girl who learns her life lessons far too early on. Living in Hitler's Germany exposes her to more than injustices; her life in Molching reveals the true nature of people.

Early on she learns that the punishments reserved for the pure of heart are sometimes worse than those doled out to those who consciously act improperly. Early on she learns that secrets are more valuable than rewards. Early on she learns that love can't always conquer all.

It's... kind of heavy.

What I loved and yet hated about this book was the unpredictable nature of its storyline. If you know anything about the Nazi regime and why good people failed to do right, more often than not, you'll be surprised. Sometimes the surprise will be pleasant. Mostly, it won't. I loved that I was wrong about the conclusions of certain storylines, but hated that their alternates were even more difficult to accept and understand - for the mere fact that I wasn't expecting them, and wasn't prepared for the emotions that poured forth.

Zusak's writing is absolutely brilliant and completely engaging. Every word has its purpose, and that is one of the central themes of the story - the power of words. I was so impressed by the creativity and originality of the oft-told story and the ways that Death, the narrator, dealt with... well, death.

As I devoured each word, I continually wondered how The Book Thief had been designated a young adult novel here in the United States (in other countries, including the author's native Australia, it was marketed as an adult novel). I thought that the subject matter was extremely advanced, and the details were much too intricate for a young person to comprehend.

But then I thought of myself at fourteen, reading books far ahead of my grade level and while I didn't fully understand parts of books, I was able to use the clues in the text to understand the author's message.

Most reviews state that The Book Thief should be reserved for sophisticated teens and adults. That sounds about right. However, I urge you to avoid reading any online reviews, as they generally give away every single important storyline and their results.

This is a book that will be in my mind for a long time to come.


Megan said...

I love this book and recommend it to people often. Markus Zusak is coming to a conference I'm attending in the Spring and I only hope I get to meet him.

Heather said...

megan - Ohhhhhh awesome! I hope you get to meet him, too!