Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Illustrated by Trudy White)

 Originally published in 2005 in Australia by Picador
Published in the United States in 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf,
an imprint of Random House Children's Books
Historical Fiction

Zusak's The Book Thief is a story about how important books become to a ten-year-old girl living in a small town (Molching) outside of Munich during World War II. In fact, writing saves her life. The narrator is Death, and the story is told from his point of view:
I could introduce myself properly, but it's not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away. 
At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery; a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I'll hear after that will be my own breathing, and the sound of the smell, of my footsteps. . . .[My] one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time I've been performing this job. The trouble is, who could ever replace me? . . . The answer, of course, is nobody, which has prompted me to make a conscious, deliberate decision--to make distraction my vacation. Needless to say, I vacation in increments (4).
Times of war are particularly stressful for Death because of the great loss of human life. Death is stressed out and needs a break; he needs to relax. However, it's not performing his job that is the real problem. Death explains that he needs a distraction from "the leftover humans." The survivors are the ones he can't stand looking at because they are the ones "left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs" (5). Then, Death begins to tell a story:
It's the story of one of those perpetual survivors--an expert at being left behind.
     It's just a small story really, about, among other things.
     *A girl [the book thief]
     *Some words
     *An accordionist
     *Some fanatical Germans
     *A Jewish fist fighter
     *And quite a lot of thievery 
I saw the book thief three times (5).
The book thief's name is Liesel Meminger, a ten-year-old girl who lives in Nazi Germany. Because she can no longer care for them, Liesel's mother decides to give up her two children (Liesel and her brother Werner) for adoption. While traveling on a train towards Munich, Werner dies, and this is the first time Death sees Liesel. While attending her brother's funeral, Liesel finds or "steals" her first book, a book called The Grave Diggers Handbook. Even though Liesel cannot read or write, she is fascinated by the book. Perhaps, the book becomes for her a companion of comfort to cope with the loss of her brother and family.

When Liesel arrives at her foster home on Himmel Street (a.k.a. Heaven Street), Death explains, "Whoever named Himmel Street certainly had a healthy sense of irony. Not that it was a living hell. It wasn't. But it sure as hell wasn't heaven, either" (26). Liesel's foster parents are waiting, Hans Hubermann, who she affectionately calls Papa and Rosa Hubermann (Mama) who is stern, has a sharp tongue, swears often, but in the end, has a heart. Liesel becomes very close to Papa as he comforts her in the middle of the night when she has nightmares and wets the bed. He plays his accordion and also teaches Liesel how to read. Liesel also meets Rudy Steiner, a young boy in the neighborhood, and they fast become friends. He has a crush on Liesel and is always asking her for a kiss. Leisel always refuses Rudy's request until Death appears (seeing the book thief for a second time) when Himmel Street is bombed in an air raid. Finally, Liesel grants Rudy's request, but it is too late.

The second book Liesel steals is called The Shoulder Shrug; she saves the book from a book burning. She happens to steal the book on Hitler's birthday, and it was her "anger and dark hatred that fueled her desire to steal it" (84). In an instant, she becomes "a girl made of darkness" (84). At the beginning of Part II, Death provides "Some Statistical Information."
First stolen book: January 13, 1939
Second stolen book: April 20, 1940
Duration between said stolen books: 463 Days (83).
Throughout the book, the narrator provides facts and statistical data to aid his readers. As the story unfolds, other characters are introduced: Max Vandenburg, a Jewish fist-fighter who is hiding in the Hubermann's basement to escape the Nazis and Tommy Muller, a young boy who lives near Liesel on Himmel Street.  Liesel and Max become close friends and share an affinity for reading. Max writes two books for Liesel that include sketches and his biography. Max actually uses pages from the book Mein Kampf, (Hitler's book of hate) to write his books; his sketches and text are illustrated in Zusak's book by Trudy White. One is a thirteen-page book called The Standover Man; the other is called The Word Shaker. Tragically, Max ends up being taken to a concentration camp, but does he survive? Tommy Muller is Liesel's neighbor on Himmel street, and he is repeatedly teased and harassed by the Hitler Youth.

A major character in the story is Ilsa Hermann. She is a prominent citizen in Molching and wife of the mayor. Mama Rosa and Liesel work for the Hermann family cleaning and pressing their laundry. When Liesel and her mother lose their job, Liesel continues visiting Ilsa's home because she loves to read the books in their large library. Even though Liesel steals books from their library, it is Ilsa who encourages Liesel to write a book about her life, a book she titles The Book Thief, which she writes in the basement. Ilsa ends up playing a significant role in Liesel's life after the Himmel Street air raid that flattens the entire neighborhood. During and after the raid, Death appears to most of the people Liesel knows. Liesel is one of the "leftover humans," a survivor left behind to crumble among "the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise." She has a punctured heart and beaten lungs, but she still has her books.

Several things the narrator (Death) says at the end of the novel will remain with me for quite some time: After the Himmel Street air raid when Liesel is leaning over Rudy's body, Death describes what he witnessed, "She leaned down and looked at his lifeless face and Liesel kissed her best friend, Rudy Steiner, soft and true on his lips. . . . She did not say goodbye. She was incapable, and after a few more minutes at his side, she was able to tear herself from the ground. It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on, coughing and searching, and finding" (536). This is the second time Death sees the book thief.

Once again, when Death sees Liesel with her Papa, he watches in amazement:
Papa was a man with silver eyes, not dead ones.
     Papa was an accordion!
     But his bellows were all empty.
     Nothing went in and nothing came out. 
She began to rock back and forth. A shrill, quiet, smearing note was caught somewhere in her mouth until she was finally able to turn.
     To Papa. 
At that point, I couldn't help it. I walked around to see her better, and from the moment I witnessed her face again, I could tell that this was who she loved the most. . . . 
'Goodbye, Papa, you saved me. You taught me to read. No one can play like you. . . . No one can play like you.'  
Her arms held him. She kissed his shoulder--she couldn't bear to look at his face anymore--and she placed him down again. 
The book thief wept till she was gently taken away (537-539).    
Seeing Liesel, the book thief, for the third time, Death becomes "distracted" from his job for a brief moment. Death rescues the book that saved Liesel's life, the one she wrote in the basement, the one she titled The Book Thief, the story of her life: "It's lucky I was there. Then again, who am I kidding? I'm in most places at least once, and in 1943, I was just about everywhere (539).

Death saw the book thief three times, and it had a tremendous impact on him: at her brother Werner's funeral, as Rudy's body lay on Himmel Street, and by Papa's side after the devastating air raid. Death's final words: "I am haunted by humans" (550).

This book really made me think about what is important in life. It's true. We will all meet Death "soon enough, depending on a great range of variables" (4). Perhaps in the end, how we respond to the difficult times we face will make a difference.

Although I liked The Book Thief and want to see the movie now that I have read it, I'm afraid many of my students would avoid reading this book because of its sheer size. I will encourage them to read it, nevertheless.

Markus Zusak's Official Website
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