Author: Markus Zusak
Paperback: 354 pages
Publisher: Transworld Publishers (div of Random House)
Publish Date: 2005
Miscellaneous: Don’t forget to check out this review’s companion post. It includes info on The Book Thief‘s future as a movie, and several quotes from the book I wasn’t able to work into this review.
On June 23, 1942, there was a group of French Jews in a German prison, on Polish soil. The first person I took was close to the door, his mind racing, then reduced to pacing, then slowing down, slowing down…
Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their French words. I watched their love-visions and freed them from their fear.
I took them all away, and if ever there was a time I needed distraction, this was it. In complete desolation, I looked at the world above. I watched the sky as it turned from silver to grey to the colour of rain. Even the clouds tried to look the other way.
Sometimes, I imagined how everything appeared above those clouds, knowing without question that the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye.
They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.
–The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 358
I finished The Book Thief by Markus Zasuk on Tuesday, but have not been able to stop thinking about it since. Normally, I sit down and write the review as soon as I finish a book, then pick up the next book and move on. However, when I read the last words of The Book Thief :
A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR: I am haunted by humans.
I found myself not wanting to let the book go. I told myself I wanted to wait to review it so it could sink in and ruminate. I had already posted it on BookMooch figuring, like most books, I wouldn’t want to reread it, and it was mooched up right away, but now I don’t want to give it up. I have put off starting Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince because I don’t want to put anything else in there ever again. All of this is utterly baffling to me because I have never had an attachment or a reaction to any book like this.
The book itself, plot-wise and such, is easy to sum up. It is the story of Liesel Meminger, the book thief, who comes to live the Hubermann’s at age nine as their foster daughter. On the way to Molching, where the Hubermann’s live, Liesel’s younger brother dies and is buried in a cemetery at the next stop. It is in this place she “steals” her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, after it falls out of the pocket of the apprentice gravedigger. As the novel progresses, Liesel makes friends with other children on Himmel (a word that means “heaven”) Street, the Hubermann’s take in and hide a Jew, and Liesel discovers the awe-inspiring private library of the mayor’s wife, from which she liberates a book now and then. All this is told by the book’s narrator, Death.
Summarizing the book is simple. Explaining and conveying how it effected me, the reader, is anything but. First of all, Zusak writes with a poetic beauty that captures the way children take in the world around them. He often crosses the communication of the five senses:
At times, in that basement, she woke up tasting the sound of the accordion in her hears. She could feel the sweet burn of champagne on her tongue. -p. 365
One line I remember but was unable to find said something like “The smell of the sound of my footsteps,” and there are so many more lines like these in the book.
Another concept Zusak descriptively conveys is the power of words.</p>
Once, words had rendered Liesel useless, but now, when she sat on the floor, with the mayor’s wife at her husband’s desk, she felt an innate sense of power. It happened every time she deciphered a new word or pieced together a sentence. -p. 154
She couldn’t tell exactly where the words came from. What mattered was that they reached her. They arrived and kneeled next to the bed. -p. 246
After a miscarriaged pause, the mayor’s wife edged forward and picked up the book. She was battered and beaten up, and not from smiling this time. Liesel could see it on her face. Blood leaked from her nose and licked at her lips. Her eyes had blackened. Cuts had opened up and a series of wounds were rising to the surface of her skin. All from words. From Liesel’s words. -p. 273
Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he said. “I will not have to…” His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible… He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany. It was a nation of Farmed thoughts. -p. 451
Frighteningly, it was exactly through the power of words and a healthy dose of charisma that Hitler was able to accomplish all the evil that was done in his name. He himself didn’t do the physical work, that would have required him to be in several places at once making that impossible, but through the words of his speeches and policies others took up his cause. Even more frightening is that his words are still used and followed to this day by some.
Also, through the use of Death, the ultimate impartial onlooker, as narrator Zusak is able to make epiphanic observations about human beings:
In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer – proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water. -p. 171
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. -p. 182
Death also points out that, beginning with houses of cards and sandcastles, humans “watch everything that was so carefully planned collapse and… smile at the beauty of destruction.” And he states a couple of times that the human child is much cannier than the adult.
By far, however, the most important observation Death makes, the concept that sets the tenor of the entire book is this:
A pair of train guards.
A pair of gravediggers.
When it came down to it, one
of them called the shots. The
other did what he was told.The
question is, what if the
other is a lot more than one?
What happens when there are a lot more people who simply do as there told, without question? What happens to a society when a madman can rule through eloquent speeches, expressing ideals of hatred, and inspiring others to carry out morally reprehensible acts of violence and wickedness?
The Book Thief by Markus Zasuk is haunting and breath-taking, poetically beautiful and filled with truth. Death often expresses sardonic, almost bitter, statements of irony, all the while telling the reader he is impartial. He points out both the evil and the good of humans, expresses both disappointment and admiration of the species among whom he walks and collects. It is a Homeric work that is full of joy and sorrow, anger and forgiveness, love and loss. It is the story of a handful of people in Nazi Germany during 1939-1945; adults, children, Catholic, Nazi, and Jew, the “free” (was anyone truly free then?) and the hidden, the epitome of the “master race” and the persecuted and annihilated.
If you’ll take a look to the right, you’ll notice I’ve added a new widget in the sidebar labelled “Mt. TBR Hall of Fame.” This is my Top 10 favorite books of all-time. This, honestly, is an imprecise feat, as I know I’ll think of a book that I liked better but forgot, or I’ll read a book that will replace a book on here, and that is okay because I can always edit it. When I added the widget, I was in the middle of reading The Book Thief, but it had already impressed me enough to be listed in 6th place… and I hadn’t even finished it yet. And after finishing it and digesting it and writing this review, it has moved up to first place.
Obviously, as The Book Thief by Markus Zasuk is now my all-time favorite book, I give it 5 out of 5 stars. It should be included in school curriculum alongside The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night. The Book Thief has both historicity and literary eloquence, and will undoubtedly become a classic.
Again, don’t forget to check out this review’s companion post.
Filed under: Book Reviews Tagged: | accordion, air raid, Anne Frank, best book, bomb, bomb shelter, children, classic children's literature, concentration camp, death, Death as the Narrator, destruction, doing what's right, Elie Wiesel, Elie Wiesel's Night, Europe, fear, france, friendship, genocide, Germany, Half-Blood Prince, Hans Hubermann, Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, haunting, heaven, hiding, Himmel Street, history, Hitler, holocaust, Homeric, Hubermann, human, human being, humanity, Jew, Liesel Meminger, loss, Max Vandenburg, Molching, morally right, Nazi, Night, persecution, Poland, power of words, rations, Rosa Hubermann, Rudy Steiner, Russia, Stalingrad, stealing, The Gravedigger's Handbook, The Word Shaker, truth, war, words, World War II, young adult, young adult fiction