The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This book tells about World War II and the Holocaust from an unusual perspective: that of ordinary German citizens. The narrator is Death, a fairly flamboyant personality who tells the story of Liesl Meminger. Liesl grows up just outside Munich, learning to read from her painter/accordion player foster father, playing soccer and terrorizing the neighborhood with her friend Rudy Steiner, and stealing books for fun. Getting inside the life of a normal family like Liesl’s shows how the Nazis were able to persuade thousands to assent to mass murder: fear and control. Once they were in power, it was impossible to speak up against the atrocities without endangering one’s entire family. Liesl’s family resists by hiding a Jewish man in their basement for a couple years. The most affecting scenes to me were the ones of trainloads of Jews being marched through Liesl’s neighborhood on their way to Dachau.
The book’s style is unusual. There are long and detailed chapter titles, occasional bolded notes, and a lot of page breaks. There are also some illustrations for two books-within-the-book, fairy tales written by the characters. The effect is fragmented and poetic, but also presentational, as if the narrator, Death, is putting on a show for you. He describes taking up souls by the thousands, from Russian battlefields, from gas chambers, from bombed-out streets.
This is one of those books that builds a vibrant world around you and makes you love the characters for the funny way they hide deep emotion under a gruff, joking exterior, using Saukerl (pig) as a term of endearment, then takes it all away through a tragedy that’s horrifying, melancholy, and inevitable. The story’s focus on learning and literacy isn’t just gratifying and affirming for an English teacher/book blogger, although that may be one of many reasons I like the book so much. Liesl’s addiction to books is about a drive to make meaning of the insanity of life in Nazi Germany, the urge to escape and transcend. Reading and writing literally save Liesl’s life, allowing Zusak to pull a bearable ending out of the overwhelming loss.
* * * A SMALL SUGGESTION * * *
Read this book.