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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review: The Book Thief

The German poet Heinrich Heine once wrote, "Them that begin by burning books, end by burning men." (Kudos to Indiana Jones for that quote!) By the end of The Book Thief, written by Australian author Markus Zusak, Liesel Meminger probably understands this better than some college professors. She should know. Being the titular character, she makes a career of petty theft throughout the story, specializing in stealing books. Beginning in 1939, ten year old Liesel arrives in a poor neighborhood of a small town near Munich, brought in by a foster family after her biological mother can no longer support her. Her brother dies of disease on the train ride there, leaving Liesel deeply shaken, but also leading her to begin her career in book theft. Suffice it to say, she steals a manual on grave digging from the cemetery where her brother is buried, but doesn't begin her book thieving career in earnest until later, where she steals a book from a Nazi party book burning.

From there, everything changes.

Liesel, initially illiterate, is taught to read by her loving foster father, the accordion playing, cigarette smoking Hans Hubermann. She becomes best friends with the incorrigible boy next door, Rudy Steiner. She becomes the heavyweight champion of the local schoolyard. She is drafted into the Hitler Youth. She befriends the young Jewish boxer that her foster family takes in. She accompanies Arthur Berg and Rudy on apple stealing expeditions. And she keeps stealing books.

What is particularly notable about this book is that, unlike so many other popular young adult novels, such as The Hunger Games and Divergent, it is not written in first person per se. It's a mixture of first, second, and third person in the form of an omniscient narrator, identified both within the novel and specifically by Zusak in interviews as Death. While I contest on theological grounds the anthropomorphic portrayal of Death as a sentient, thinking being, I have to admit that Zusak's choice of Death as the narrator of a book set in Germany during the Second World War is a stroke of brilliance. In the book, Death is a wearied, put-upon being who yearns for a vacation and is amused by human conceptions of him. (At one point, he notes that he does not carry a scythe and that he only wears big black cloaks on cold days.) He is not a sadist, but rather a disinterested, even compassionate being. He goes so far as to directly contest the assertion that "War is death's best friend." In The Book Thief, Death is literally as much a main character as Liesel Meminger.

Speaking of characters, Zukas manages to successfully work with a large cast and make them all stand out in their own way. They all feel well rounded and realistic, like they're really living and breathing on the other side of the fourth wall. Everyone from Liesel, Rudy, and Max Vandenburg (the aforementioned young Jewish boxer) to Ilsa Hermann, Tommy Mueller, and Frau Diller have a clear cut motivation and characterization, all of which work together like a well trained orchestra, producing an equally grand result. The most interesting character in the book, I think, is Hans Hubermann (my personal favorite is Max). In him are wrapped up many of the prevailing themes of this book. Courage versus cowardice. Survivor's guilt. The power of love. Those are just a few of the many powerful themes present in this book, but we'll discuss those later.

Of course, with great characters that you can relate to and love, that also means that they are characters who you will be crushed to read about when their unfortunate fates are mentioned. I won't go into detail for risk of spoilers, but let's just say that you're going to come away from this book very, very sad. I sure did. But the sadness and emotion generated in the reader is only a payoff for the suspense built up throughout the whole book. The reader is constantly kept guessing at just what will happen, how this plot thread will unravel, who does what, what happens to whom. If nothing else, The Book Thief is unpredictable. Most of the time, that's a good thing. This is one of those times.

Oddly enough, the least interesting character in this book is probably Liesel herself, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. Though the story is ostensibly about her, most of the focus is on the events and people going on and about around her as she perceives it. How she reacts to it is generally how the reader reacts to it. She's still a well-rounded, complex character, but not to the degree that a lot of the others, such as Rudy, Max, Hans, or even Rosa Hubermann (Liesel's foster mother) are. She is, in a word, a viewpoint character, and a darn good one at that. I actually learned in my creative writing class last year that the main character shouldn't necessarily always be the most interesting, for the sake of telling a good story. If they are the most interesting character in the cast, then it's usually harder to write a good story, something only the best writers can usually pull off. Again, this is not a bad thing, and the book actually benefited from it in the end.

Major themes in this book other than those previously mentioned include death (obviously), war, friendship, family, love, compassion, loss, grief, different perspectives in a conflict, and hope. A lot of heavy stuff. The most pervasive and obvious theme, however, is the power of words. Liesel, Max, and Death both note that words have great power, and can be used for either good or evil. That's a lesson that needs to be taught a little more often in this day and age.

A word of warning, however. This book is quite plainly enough a young adult book, mainly because of the ubiquitous profanity, both German and English. I'd think that for someone who reads a lot, Liesel would have a larger vocabulary, though she does by the end of the book. As it is, all of the characters, except Ilsa Hermann, swear at least a little, but the primary offender is Rosa Hubermann, so take what you will from that. There's also a lot of, well, death, and destruction, and some other nasty things that I dare not mention in polite company. Moreover, The Book Thief doesn't seem to condemn the eponymous character's actions so much as it observes them, but I can't help but note that stealing, whatever the reason, is stealing, specifically prohibited by the eighth commandment. I do hope that Liesel, noted by Death to be a Lutheran, paid heed to Ephesians 4:28 in her later years.

Nevertheless, The Book Thief is without a doubt one of the greatest books that I have ever read, with a style and excellence in writing that reminds me of Louis Sachar, Jeanne DuPrau, and even Eoin Colfer. I therefore see fit to award this book with the highest rating which I can bestow upon it. I also look forward to reading another of Markus Zusak's award-winning books, I Am the Messenger. It sounds quite good. I also hope to view The Book Thief's recent film adaption of the same name, though I've been told that it's "so-so." Ah well. Worth a shot, right?

RATING: 10/10

Image courtesy of barnesandnoble.com