Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book  Review - The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Why is this shelved in the Young Adult section? The Book Thief is a 550 page hammer. The protagonist being a girl does not make this a children's book.
Certainly War is Hell, and the Holocaust was Hell on Earth. There is no missing the point.
The narrator is Death - this is no spoiler: by page 15 it's obvious.
The hero is literacy.
Starting in 1939 we follow the life of a 9-year old girl who watches her little brother die on a train. As Liesel and her mother arrive at their destination, her mother sends her off to live with foster parents in a small town near Munich. Though they are Germans, Liesel's father was evidently a Communist - already she is an outsider. Fortunately, her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, are also outsiders, living in the poorest section of Molching.
Liesel is illiterate, a fact she tries to conceal at school. Hans Hubermann sits up with her at night, when nightmares of her brother's death prevent sleep, teaching her the alphabet, and to read. Her first book is The Grave Digger's Manual, which she seized at her brother's funeral. She and Hans read it together.

Even without the heavy-handed foreshadowing our narrator indulges in, we know what's coming:
In Germany from January 1939 through October 1943, we will be immersed in the solidification of Nazism and banishment of Jews;
Privations of wartime (scarcity of food, heating fuel, etc.);
Clashes between those who just want to live their lives and those who embrace Hitler's vision;
Men conscripted into the army while their families worry;
Proximity to Dachau;
Bombing raids.
In addition to these, we also see a girl growing up and battling her way to be the person she is: curious, tough, brave and resourceful. And literate. She forms a secret alliance with the forlorn wife of the mayor, who shares her library. She befriends a neighbor boy whose legendary feat, before her arrival, was to blacken his skin and race on the local track as Jesse Owens. Liesel and Rudy share many adventures, in the adversarial way of people who must maintain a certain emotional distance.
Eventually the Hubermanns harbor a Jew, the son of a fellow-soldier of Hans from WWI. Max and Liesel form a bond through words and images; it is her weather reports as much as anything that keep him alive during his months in their basement.
But the magic moments that make us smile are ground under the boot-heels of inevitability - the book goes on and on, long after we have begged for the mercy of an ending.
Sections are short and the words well-chosen, with frequent insertions by our narrator:
          "When she looked up again, the room was pulled apart, then squashed back together. All the kids were mashed, right before her eyes, and in a moment of brilliance, she imagined herself reading the entire page in faultless, fluency-filled triumph.

*** A KEY WORD ***
Of course, she cannot read yet. Instead she recites a passage from The Grave Digger's Handbook, memorized from Hans Hubermann's voice reading it to her so many times.
Later she becomes an adept reader, and even a writer, but first she must be humiliated. This becomes a familiar pattern for the characters in The Book Thief: Hans cannot find work because he isn't a Nazi; Rudy and his friend Tommy are tormented by the Hitler Youth leader; the Jew Max staggers from one moment of suffering to the next; Rosa loses her clientele as a washerwoman, partly because money is tight but also because Hans is not a party member. And Liesel suffers for and with all of them.
It's a grim read.
It's 150-200 pages too long.
I have seen ugly fonts, but the page numbers in this book are beyond horrible.
Should you read it? 
It's a vivid means for contemplating war, and what it does to us all.
But if you've read Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman, or If This Is a Man by Primo Levi, I let you off the hook: you don't have to slog through The Book Thief.

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