"The best children's stories are wisdom dipped in art and words." -Peter Reynolds

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is truly amazing. It was published in 2005 by Knopf and is a historical fiction text about WWII and the holocaust.  It is narrated by Death who has been personified and recounts the life of the book thief, Liesel Meminger, a young and poor girl in Nazi Germany.

I have a bad habit of recounting every single thing that happens in a story and ruining the endings so, I will try not to do that here! Liesel is forced to move in with foster parents after the death of her brother and her mother being taken away. At her brother's funeral, one of the grave diggers dropped a copy of A Grave Digger's Handbook and she stole it. She was hooked on books ever since.

Her new parents are Rosa, a small and boisterous woman and Hans, the tall, kind, artist. Liesel encounters many new people in her new town including her best friend Rudy and other neighbors on Himmel Street. Death explains in great detail all of Liesel's adventures including soccer with Rudy and friends, stealing books and apples, and learning to read with Hans. Her family even ends up taking in a "Jew" named Max and hiding him in their basement. Every character is explained in great detail and you become a part of Himmel Street yourself.

Through Death's narration of Liesel's life we fall in love with her, her friends, and her family. Death also explains a great deal about Hitler, WWII, and the Nazi treatment of the Jews. I think that this novel is very historically accurate and would be an excellent novel for high school children to study. It is eye-opening and beautifully written. I absoutely loved Death as a narrator because he spoke the truth and was unbiased. He gave us a perspective that we otherwise would not have heard and added great meaning to the story. I especially enjoyed all of his asterisk notes that let us know insider information. For example, near the end of the story when he told us what the last few words were of Liesel's book she was writing entitled The Book Thief, "I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right," (528). We would not have found out this information if not for Death's telling us behind the scenes. Overall, I believe that Death as a narrator was the perfect decision for this brave book. The Holocaust in Nazi Germany was a nightmare and only Death himself could tell that difficult story. He is the only one who saw everything that happened, everywhere.

It is imperative to discuss how important words are in this book. Liesel Meminger was infatuated with books and words since she found her first book even though she was illiterate. "Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain," (80). Liesel was taught to read by her foster father and she used her words for good like reading stories to Max and the townspeople in the bomb shelter. Zusak made the comparison of using words for good like Liesel, to using them for evil like Hitler. He was able to manipulate the masses into murdering the Jews with just his words. Words are powerful and they always have been, always will.

Let me say that this book is not considered light reading! It is very long and on top of that the content is very heavy. I recommend reading this book in parts and then revisiting it after reflection. Honestly, it took me until around page 300 to get really interested in the book. At the time, I felt that Zusak was explaining a bit too much about the characters and story even though in retrospect I now understand why he did that. I bawled crying at the end of this book. I cried so much that my dog had to come check on me. But why? It was because Zusak had took his time introducing me to the story that I felt so attached to and so connected to. So although it may be a slow start, it is worth it!

Death said many lines in this book that really made me think about mortality, about death, about our time on Earth. He discussed collecting the souls of people who had died and how he saw so many colors when he did, "So many humans. So many colors. they keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. there is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. They are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-colored clouds, beating like black hearts. And then. There is death," (309). Most people do not think of death in this way and it really helped me visualize the process of death and its effect on the world. Another line I particularly liked was how Death described war. He said, "**A SMALL BUT NOTEWORTHY NOTE*** I've seen so many young men over the years who think they're running at other young men. They are not. They're running at me," (174-175). It is so morbid and sad to think about but it is so true, especially in WWII.

Lastly, I have a significant personal connection to this story. In 2005, I visited Dachau concentration camp in Germany with my family. Reading about the Jewish prisoners marching to Dachau gave me chills knowing I have been there. I still remember the eerie and depressing feeling while walking around the camp and seeing the showers, the bunks, the yards. After reading The Book Thief, I have an even deeper understanding of WWII and Nazi Germany that I hope people all over the country can experience as well.

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