Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday's Fare: Review of The Book Thief

I'm finally back, after a prolonged absence I wasn't counting on. Hopefully, all those pesky little physical problems are gone, and I can get back to business.

If you have not read The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak, you should, because you are missing out on one of the GREAT YA books of all time. Not just my opinion, as this book has won 12 awards, including Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Children's Literature, Michael L. Printz Honor Book Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, and nine other prestigious awards.

The year is 1939. The place is Molching, a small town in Nazi Germany. The narrator is Death, who tells you right off that you have nothing to be afraid of, because if nothing else, he is fair. The main character is Liesel Meminger, 9 years old, sent to live with a foster family in a working-class neighborhood after the death of her younger brother. Her father has been taken to a concentration camp for being a Communist, and her mother has disappeared.

Death meets Liesel for the first time when he comes for her little brother at the railroad station. For reasons he himself cannot explain, Death becomes fascinated by this small girl as she stands rigidly by the body of her brother, and allows tears to freeze on her face. This is Liesel's story, but it is Death's story, too.

Death observes Liesel stealing a book she finds laying on the ground at her brother's funeral, and  he gives her the name, The Book Thief.  It is The Gravediggers' Handbook, and even though she cannot read, she is determined to keep this book.  It is Liesel's foster father who reads to her every night out of The Gravediggers' Handbook, when she is having nightmares about her brother, and it is this book from which Liesel eventually learns to read.

Liesel realizes that words are what keep her sane, and one book is not enough, so she sets out to steal as many books as she can. First comes the one from a Nazi book-burning, but that is only the beginning. She meets the Nazi mayor's strange and reclusive wife, who invites Liesel into  her library to read, and then allows her to steal books by pretending she knows and sees nothing.

Over the next few years, Death observes Liesel with her friend Rudy, a neighbor boy who teaches her to steal more than books, and especially Max, a young Jewish refugee who takes shelter in the basement of Hans and Rosa Hubermann and while there, literally whitewashes pages of old newspapers in order to write his own book for Liesel. Books are the spine of this novel, and they become not only Liesel's own salvation, but diversions from an Allied bombing raid gone awry, and the ultimate hedge against Liesel's grief and despair.

Death is a formidable voice in this book. At times he is quite dispassionate, but at others, particularly in the beginning of the story,  you can almost feel his own grief at his workload.

Death is also very observant of colors. Every death has a color...he prefers chocolate, dark chocolate, but finds every color is available at the moment of death. Especially, in Nazi Germany, red. As he says, in his line of work, he needs a distraction, and that comes in colors that he makes a point of noticing.  You might ask, what does Death need a distraction from?  In his words...the leftover humans. The survivors with the wounded hearts no one can heal. That's when he seeks out the colors most of all.

This book is about Death, about heroics and grief, hope and despair, about courage in the face of a known but unseen enemy, about life and love and death. It is about the words that kept a young girl alive, but it is far more than that: it is about the unbeatable spirits that are kept alive in the midst of tragedy and the violence of an unspeakable war.  It is a remarkable book that offers both teens and adults in our world today not only hope, but the realization that there are alternatives to any rigid political or societal ideology, and that even the most voracious amorality of the times can be overcome.

The Book Thief is not a book you can sit down and read through in a single sitting. You must take your time, savor it, understand it, and ultimately, fall in love with it.  It is a book about words, the beauty of them, the good they can do, and the evil they can cause. It is brilliant, powerful, grim, sad, and yet, overflowing with a kind of inner spirit and courage you may never encounter again.

A MUST read. You won't regret it.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.