Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

A few weeks back, I read a list of books for book lovers.  Basically, a selection of works which revolve around the written word and its importance.  Thus, my introduction to The Book Thief.  I had no real idea what the book was about; I simply knew that it was included on this list of books that people who love books should read.  Seeing as I am definitely a person who loves books, I gave it a shot.  

The first few chapters sent me into puzzle mode, as I attempted to discern from whose point of view the book was written.  It does not take long to realize that your narrator is Death.  Not Death in the Grim Reaper fashion you may think, but Death, who carries the souls away in his arms.  This offers an extremely unique perspective for story telling, particularly as it becomes apparent Zusak has set his book in WWII-era Germany.

Perhaps this is because I am American, but it seems that there are not many stories told about WWII focused on the German citizenry.  If a German story is told, it speaks of Nazi soldiers or those natives persecuted under the Nazi regime.  These stories, while captivating and heartbreaking, do not often address what it was like for the average German.  I have no doubt that there are many stories out there like The Book Thief which do so, but I have not been exposed to many of them.

Zusak tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl taken in by foster parents outside of Munich.  She arrives on their doorstep having just witnessed her younger brother's death and been abandoned by her mother, who is unable to care for her.  Though her foster mother can be strict and harsh, Liesel's foster father becomes her closest companion as he sits with her after her nightmares.  She also befriends a neighbor boy named Rudy and they become true partners in crime.

Death, our narrator, uses the books in Liesel's life to mark important events.  Books captivate Liesel, even before her foster father teaches her to read and write.  Deaths calls her "the book thief" from the first abandoned book she plucks from the snow to the books she actually steals from the home of the mayor.  These books become a refuge for Liesel and those around her as times get darker.  The Nazis rise in power; Liesel must join the Hitler Youth; the war comes; the bombings begin; the world grows continually darker.  In the midst of all of this, normal life continues in the small town, albeit at a slowing pace.  Over this time, Liesel's collection of books grows.  Each book is precious, particularly the ones written for her by Max, the Jew hiding in their basement.  Zusak uses the books and the stories of how Liesel acquires them to talk much more about the characters than about the books themselves.  For instance, a line from one of Liesel's books is as follows: "There were people everywhere on the city street, but the stranger could not have been more alone if it were empty." (532)  The poetry of this line speaks not to the characters in Liesel's book, but to the characters in Zusak's.  It becomes evident that living in Nazi Germany eliminates the ability to trust, and therefore to feel united.  Everyone has something to hide from their neighbors, for fear of their neighbors loyalties.

Another unique aspect of The Book Thief is Zusak's disregard for creating suspense.  He has no qualms about giving away his story.  Death says it this way:
"I'm spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it.  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.  There are many things to think of.  There is so much story." (268)
On one hand, we, as the blockbuster generation, value suspense and Zusak's disposal of it can be alarming and frustrating.  On the other, knowing the ending enhances the suspense in a way.  Think of movies such as Citizen Kane, Moulin Rouge or Fight Club.  You know the ending, or at least part of it, and yet you still want to know the path the story takes to get their.  It demonstrates a writing technique that, really, is undervalued.

Overall, I enjoyed The Book Thief.  It did not end up being as much about books as I had hoped, although they figured very prominently.  I liked the role they played and how Zusak used them to progress the story line.  The true story, though, follows the people of this German town and the tragedies WWII brings them.  As with any historical fiction from this era, the reader is sobered and reminded of the horror of war for citizens.  This figures particularly strongly when read from the perspective of Death himself.

Have you read a book written from a unique perspective?  Or perhaps a book about books?  Do you think giving away the ending in advance helps or hurts the storyteller?

Pages: 576
Date Completed: October 26, 2012

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