Publication Date: March 14, 2006
2006: The Quill Award Nominee for Young Adult/Teen, Association Of Jewish Libraries New And Notable Book for Teen Book Award
2007: National Jewish Book Award, Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Children's Literature, Printz Honor, Exclusive Books Boeke Prize, ALA's Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults
2008: Zilveren Zoen
2009: Prijs van de Kinder- en Jeugdjury Vlaanderen, Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis
2010: Teen Read Award Nominee for Best All-Time-Fave, Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee
It’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .
Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.
This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.
To be completely truthful, I would probably never have reviewed Zusak's The Book Thief if I had not considered giving it away for World Book Night. It is the kind of book that can affect you deeply if you let it, but the reaction is just as deeply personal. And, at this point, its awards and accolades allow it to speak for itself. It is clearly a beautifully written, well constructed book. There are two things, though, that Zusak does so incredibly well that I feel I have to mention them: his use of language and foreshadowing.
As Death began his narration, the very first thing that struck me was the words. In a book that is all about the power and importance of words, that shouldn't come as a surprise, but it did. Zusak talks about things--familiar things--in a completely different way than I am accustomed, and it changed the way I saw them. I have heard of people 'carrying' a memory of someone. However, when Death described Liesel's mother carrying the memory of her brother like a Werner-shaped bag slung over her shoulder, and that she occasionally had to drop him limbs flinging to the platform of the Bahnhof before slinging him back over the other shoulder, Zusak made the cliche so much more visceral--he made it something new. We can feel the weight of that memory, how unwieldy a burden it must be, the sheer exhaustion her mother must feel while carrying it, but she cannot put it down or leave it behind. One has baggage for a reason. Just like when Liesel's crying for her brother is described as "a gang of tears;" or a draft is described as the breeze of the Third Reich gaining strength, or Europe breathing; or perhaps when two grey-eyed men, father and son, disagreeing across a dinner table are described as "metallic eyes" clashing "like tin cans in the kitchen;" each of these instances pack so much more into the words than what is on the surface. The words are like tightly folded little notes that you must open before you get the full message. We can see the violence and the multitude of Liesel's tears in the word "gang." We feel the coolness of the air, the fear in the room, the smallness and helplessness that the people feel as the draft whips by. And we feel the sharpness, the uncomfortably loud emotional clanging of two like things meeting in discord. In someone else's hands this 552 page book could have been so much longer, and still not have said everything Zusak was able to communicate. His words burn, even in their multitude.
I was also greatly struck by something Death says about half way through the book:
I have given you two events in advance, because I don't have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It's the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me. (p 243)
Here Death is being very disingenuous, because he is actually quite good at creating a mystery. Sure, we are given a few very big pieces of the story; we know how some things are going to end. History tells us how many things are going to end! But, as Death says himself at the end of that quote, the ending isn't really what is important. It reminded me a lot of Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings":
The only authentic ending is the one provided here:
John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.
So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with.
That's about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
Now try How and Why.
The mystery, the beauty, of The Book Thief lies in the how and why. Even knowing some of the really big pieces, and picking up on the increasingly obvious foreshadowing, I was still left completely emotionally unprepared for how and why certain things occurred. Zusak is a true connoisseur.
The thing I think I most love about The Book Thief, though, comes back to language. Only this time it is Deutsch. It is almost impossible to get more than a couple of pages without a new German word or phrase being used or defined. Zusak never lets the reader forget that the characters about whom they are reading, for whom they now care, are Germans in Nazi Germany. He gives Germans back their voice, and, in doing so, fights a propaganda machine that has been chugging away continuously for over 100 years now with the same message: All Germans are bad. All Germans are bad. All Germans are bad. That is not to say that we don't occasionally get movies or books about the everyday Germans who were doing good things, being heroes in both little and big ways, but they are often Anglicized. Aside from character or place names, all Deutsch is removed from the text. And, unless they are Nazis or Evil Geniuses (or in the case of Indiana Jones movies, both) their accents are crisply British or smoothly American. (Hence the reason that an atrocity such as Tom Cruise playing Claus von Stauffenberg can occur!!! Breath, just breath.) We sometimes get so caught up in what the Nazis did, thought, were, etc., that we forget that to be German and to be a Nazi were vastly different things. Not all Nazis wore uniforms; and not everyone who wore a uniform was a Nazi--compulsory military service will do that. (And we get to see that with some of the characters.) I also love that Zusak says this of Max:
[H]e had walked out of that building a new man. In fact, he walked out German. Hang on a second, he was German. Or more to the point, he had been. (p 159)
Taking his lead from famous Jews who would have been contemporaries of Max such as Gertrud Kolmar, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein or Katja Behrens, he shows that, at least for them, it was never a choice: They were German and Jewish.
Despite its Literary bent or all of the Big Things, Important Topics, or Issues addressed within, at the end of the day The Book Thief is really just a beautifully written story. A story about a young girl who learns the power of words in a difficult time; that "books and words...mean not just something, but everything." And it can make you believe that, too, if you let it.
This review also appears at Goodreads; I purchased my copy from Nightbird Books.