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Book Review: "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak
I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this book. Some are contradictory. I will give you a spoiler: I’m not certain if I liked it or not.
Firstly, I should admit that I did cry.
I cried and cried and cried. I cried buckets of tears. Also, I stayed up until 2am because I could not stop reading the book; I just had to finish it in one sitting. I read and cried and hit myself in the head with my iPad because I had dosed off, which woke me abruptly, so I could read and cry some more before dosing off again, to repeat the pattern. I cried hardest at the end. And we all know how it ends because it is narrated by death.
So, it is simple. I liked the book, a great deal. Yes? Hmm. I’m still not certain!
“The Book Thief” is a novel set in Nazi Germany, in Molching, a (fictional) town outside Munich, the “birthplace” of the Nazi movement. The book begins in January 1939, on a train. Liesel Meminger’s mother is taking Liesel and her brother, Werner, to Molching to live with foster parents. They are all clearly hungry and very poor. Werner dies on the train enroute to Molching. After burying her brother, Leisel and her mother continue Munich, from which the authorities take Liesel on to her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and her mother disappears, never to be seen or heard from again.
At her brother’s burial, Liesel steals a book from one of the gravediggers and thereby earns the name “Book Thief”. Stealing books is not really the point of the book. I believe Liesel steals three books during the course of the novel. The book stealing, initially a taking of something by which to remember her brother, seems to be a metaphor for Liesel’s transformation from illiterate and unaware, passive child, to a child who learns to read, and begins to recognize and act as a participant in what is going on in the world around her.
In addition to the Hubermanns, other people significant to Liesel include a neighbor boy and friend, Rudy Steiner, Max Vandenburg, a Jew Liesel and the Hubermann’s hide in the basement, and the Burgermeister’s wife, Frau Hermann, a woman broken by the death of her son in WW1.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Liesel moves to Molching just months before Germany invades Poland and the war begins. We are presented with the story of ordinary Germans making a life in wartime Nazi Germany. Although some of the minor characters are clearly shown to be bad, most of the characters in this novel lean toward the good, and for the most part, they are even apolitical, remaining as neutral as possible in order to get in as little trouble as possible.
This mindset, to play along – hang the Nazi flag outside your home on Hitler’s birthday, enroll your children in the Hitler Youth programs, even join the Nazi Party – but do as little as possible for or against Jews or other undesirables is probably what most Germans did, and probably what most of us would do in a similar situation.
Hitler created an atmosphere of fear, and no doubt counted on even those who were not true believers to play along, if only to save their own skins. This allowed the Third Reich to continue on its course.
This is the behavior Edmund Burke (18th century Statesman, Philosopher) referred to when he wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Death, the Weisenheimer
I have read in other reviews of the book complaint that the author didn’t show enough of the meanness, that these Germans were almost too mild, portrayed too sympathetically. I actually appreciate this restraint because it is so easy to always show the rabid Nazi – he is expected to goose step across any novel or film set in Nazi Germany in his highly polished Jackboots.
This, however, is not the tale of the uniform clad SS officer or the rich man who used his wealth and power to save hundreds. This is a different story, a tale of the powerless, common people compromising and making their way through hazardous times. Children steal food and hide it from their family in order to have something in their stomachs, or steal books in order to “get back” at a cruel system. It is a world where an average man must break a law and risk his life to save Jewish man’s life or feed him a crust of bread in the street.
As noted previously, the book is narrated by Death. In this tale, Death is quirky and has clearly seen too much. This is the other primary source of complaint of the book - Death is a Weisenheimer, making wisecracks about his job and the horrors he has witnessed. Death is attracted to, even as he is repelled by humans and our behavior; he is also weary as the Nazis and growing war have ramped up his workload to a relentless flow.
This wisecracking, even flippant, Death seems to bother many readers. He does not bother me; in fact, this personality makes it seem feasible to me because I am a nurse and I know medical people will speak in ways that would seem insensitive when talking amongst themselves about their work and what they have seen. This is how we survive what we see, how we manage the horror, and I can accept that this is how death survives his work as well.
Comments and Criticism
Another source of complaint is the odd writing style. There are childish drawings and strange use of language – lemon colored hair, a chocolate colored sky, and there are little boldface news flash type statements. So much of the text is “precious”. I am not certain if this is supposed to somehow underscore Death’s quirky personality or if it intended to mirror the writing style and the type of language a young girl like Leisel might have used writing in her journal.
It is even possible that this is some gimmick intended to keep the attention of the Young Adult reader. It is really impossible for me to tell and it makes this the one the one area I find irritating in the book: the hammy delivery.
So, although I admire the story, I am left feeling a little too aware of the actual text. It made me irritated and uncomfortable. It was difficult to pay attention to the story when the writer kept tugging at my arm saying “look at me and my precious writing”. I was left with the feeling that not all that needed to be said was actually said.
I think, in the end, I will say that I liked the story, but felt the writing of the story was less than desirable. I wish I new more about some of the characters. For instance, Rosa Hubermann, at first glance a shrew, is shown to have a full and loving heart and great generosity. I want to know so much more about how she made her way to Himmel Street.
In the end, I believe a good editing might have helped the author disappear, clearing the way for a finer view of these interesting and doomed souls.