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Thursday, August 22, 2013


I may be ready to move a new book into my Top Ten list.  It’s Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, a phenomenal story full of the unexpected and written with superb skill and control.  On one hand, my response was intellectual because the story takes place in Germany during WWII beginning in January, 1939, and the characters, ordinary people living in Molching, a town just outside Munich, are not the people one usually reads about in WWII books.  In that way The Book Thief is reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front.  On the other hand, however, much as I fought against it, I had a visceral reaction to the book and its characters.  So much of the time I was told what the future would hold for them; yet I read hoping that somehow the story would progress differently.  It never did. It is impossible to escape the tragedy that was WWII.

Zusak does not lure his readers into The Book Thief; he grabs them by the collar and yanks them into the story through the most original first person narrator I’ve ever met.  I cannot be a spoiler here and tell you; you will find out soon enough, and perhaps you will be moved to alter your preconceptions about what he represents.  I hope I did.

You will follow this narrator through the story of a little girl, Liesel, who is given into the protective care of foster parents living on Himmel (Heaven) Street after….That you will find out as you read.  You follow her life as seen through the narrator’s eyes from the moment he first spies her on the train.  He tells her story as recorded in the book she wrote which he carries “in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell.  It is one of the small legion I carry, each extraordinary in its own right.”

By January, 1939 the people in Germany are hungry and suffering, but Adolf Hitler is still in his glory.  German soldiers still go with pride to fight in Russia.  Allegiance to his cause is everything, and those who do not follow the party line or who do not APPEAR to follow are suffering even more.  Liesel’s foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann receive a small stipend for taking her.  It helps them get by.  They are ordinary and extraordinary people at the same time, but that is something you will find out as you read.  What is constantly remarkable about The Book Thief is that our narrator, while jumping ahead in time to reveal the future, never does so in a way to ruin the present for the reader.

Through our narrator we are introduced to the rest of the Hubermann family and the people of the neighborhood including the children, particularly Rudy Steiner, with whom Liesel plays.  We get to know every one as human beings with all their idiosyncrasies and foibles.  It is our narrator who smoothes them out for us, evaluates them, and finally softens all the rough edges to show their longings and their deeper selves—sometimes appreciated and sometimes lost to those around them.  It is this microcosm of humanity that touches me most.

In his explanations, the narrator gives us many reasons for the way people act as they do, and he does it in a straightforward manner often listed as “facts about….”  We may not immediately understand, for instance, how an accordionist becomes a major player in this novel, but the FACT that it is important is introduced within the first pages. 

As the narrator begins, “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”

Interest is piqued, and off you go to find out about the list. 

Beautifully written, Kusak’s writing is spare and tight yet the reader can see and experience every place, action, and emotion as it happens.  Characters suffer cruelly, but they also exhibit courage, morality, perseverance, and friendship.  The book is ultimately uplifting and thoughtful.  It is a book that will stay with you.

A caveat: The Book Thief is considered Young Adult Fiction.  Frankly I’ve never known a young person to whom I would offhandedly give this book.  It needs to be discussed because it may be troubling to many young people.  Maturity will peel away the various levels and make Zusak’s message more palatable.  It’s a great book to help build a parent/child relationship.

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