…Because I’m reading the best, most emotionally-charged book I’ve read in a long time: The Book Thief. Regulars to my Language Arts and Reading classes know the book as I’ve been reading it aloud to them for a few weeks now. But I have been reading ahead (naturally), and let me just tell you, kids: it gets worse.
“How can it get worse?” you might be asking. “Didn’t little Liesel watch her brother cough to death on a train? Didn’t her mother abandon her to foster care for apparently no sensible reason? Isn’t she illiterate and thus forced to be in the Kindergarten class despite her 10 years of age?”
Yes to all of those. And yes: it still gets worse.
But the best part—the thing that keeps me so intellectually and emotionally engaged in the novel—is that the book is not melodramatic, or for that matter, sappy. It would be very easy for a writer to use the Holocaust as the means to play on his or her reader’s heart strings for a quick buck, but Markus Zusak does not even come close to doing that. How does he avoid it?
Well, first and foremost, he takes the unusual outside-the-box narrative decision by using Death—as in the Grim Reaper—as the novel’s narrator. This serves a couple of purposes.
First, it forces the readers to look at the Holocaust from a strictly objective—and, to be sure, strictly non-human—point of view. We see that Hitler was indeed a powerful (if extremely charismatic) man who empowered his nation to act on his wildly evil and ethnocentric ideals. We also see that not all Germans were Nazis; and, on that same coin, we see that not all Nazis were evil and believed in Hitler’s ideals whole-heartedly.
The other purpose that the choice of Death as the narrator serves is that, as unlikely as it may sound, the narrative develops an extremely unlikely—though extremely welcomed—humorous quality. For instance, near the beginning of the book, Death warns, “Trust me. I am not someone you want to argue with” right before making a quick aside explaining that we shouldn’t be frightened by the previous statement, and that he is really not as gruff and cold as people make him out to be. Also, he constantly makes tongue-in-cheek observations on silly human behavior, like how Hans Hubermann and his wife Rosa can constantly hurl cuss-names at one another throughout a given day but still love each other dearly when all is said and done.
But the humor is not the focus of the novel. It is merely the sweetness in this ultimately bittersweet tale. Just when you find yourself chuckling at one of Death’s little Seinfeld-ian observations on daily human life, or even laughing out loud at Liesel’s usage of the word Saumensch (which roughly translates as “pig-bitch”) to help her learn the letter “S” because her mama Rosa calls her by the name—lovingly, without doubt—countless times throughout the day, we are reminded of Liesel’s dead brother, and how he was staring helplessly at the ground when Liesel last saw him alive; or we glimpse the shadowy, ghost-like figures that move in the darkness on the pilfered and wholly-vandalized Jewish street in Liesel’s town; or—and this I find to be among the most unsettling attributes of the novel—we witness the nationally-accepted brainwashing of Germany’s young people through the disgusting Third Reich tool that was “Hitler Youth.” The book takes you up, the book takes you down, and then the book takes you to other uncharted places you’d never in a thousand readings expect to be taken to.
When you take into consideration these many contrasting aspects and attributes of the novel, it becomes quite clear that Zusak has given us something worth far more than any third-rate melodrama. For once, we have an objective look at one of the darkest moments in the history of humankind. No one polarizing the Nazis as “evil” and their enemies as “good,” but instead a simple—if at times unbearable—view at the potentials of all human beings for doing evil or good.
And lastly, of course, there are the themes which beautifully round this novel out into the young adult classic it has in some ways already become. Themes that remind us why we need to read books; why we need to write; and—above all else—why we need to remember.
Students in my classes will all have the privilege of finishing this novel, even if it takes us the rest of the year to get through the 500+ pages. If you do not find yourself in this category, I highly recommend that you go out and somehow find a copy. Buy it. Borrow it.
Or, in the true spirit of the book, steal it. Trust me, your soul will thank you.