I picked up a copy of The Book Thief at the library earlier this week. It's been on my to-read list at GoodReads for a while, after I spotted it on a friend's list and read the description. What attracted me most to the novel was the narratorial premise: Death tells this story. I was really curious to see how Zusak would handle this. So when I walked into the library, the book was on a table displayed with other nominees for the Georgia Peach Book Award (Twilight (The Twilight Saga, Book 1) won the award this year).
At first I wasn't fully engaged in the book. I confess that I initially hesitated, when I determined that the book was set in Nazi Germany. I didn't want to get wrapped up in a book that would just leave me weeping at the end, and I didn't want to read something that just rehashed a lot of concepts I had seen earlier about living through war. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is all well and good, but I didn't want to read a postmodern retelling of the same kind of story. Fortunately The Book Thief stands on its own, both in terms of its plot and its interaction with the wartime setting.
The heroine and namesake of the novel is a young girl who, early in the book, is sent to live with a foster family on the outskirts of Munich prior to the outbreak of World War II. I'm vehemently opposed to spoilers, so I'll try not to give away too much. The novel is interesting in the way that books figure so centrally into identity formation. The title character, Liesel, grows up in that she develops her own identity out of learning to read, and then her sense of purpose comes from the books she possesses and subsequently her creation of her own text, her own story, which is the basis of Death's narration. Death doesn't hang around spying on Liesel the whole time, although he is, as is lamentably expected in war, around frequently to collect souls.
At first I didn't understand how having Death as the narrator actually added anything to the novel. It seemed quirky, even like a gimmick, because Zusak didn't fully explore the ramifications of that choice until later in the novel. Death has an interesting style, very postmodern with bits from other texts pieced together into his own observations and excerpts from Liesel's life story. But his observations about color, and the ways in which he tries to focus on the scene instead of the individuals mourning a death, offer an effective indirect commentary. The ways in which he tries to focus on something other than the metaphorical elephant in the room - for him, the actual death and its impact on others, and for the Germans, the deplorable treatment of Jews and the atrocities committed against anyone who opposed Hitler - work nicely to communicate the outrage without coming across as didactic or pedantic.
The thread of the novel that appealed most to me, that got me hooked and fully engaged, was the shift from book consumption to book creation. When Liesel and another character, a young Jewish man named Max who hides in the basement, begin creating their own texts and expressing their own experiences and moreover sharing these texts with each other, it's not unbelievably poetic or elegant. The way in which Zusak depicts these tellings seems believably honest. And also? Liesel's foster father, who is a true father to her, is just fabulous. I wanted to know him, or someone like him, or to think that I could be like him. To step out of a life of ordinariness, unobtrustiveness, and do something great, commit to believing in the humanity of all people, despite the danger - I wish and hope that I have that kind of courage and beauty within myself.
So in the end, The Book Thief made me cry. But it was a good kind of cry, and let's just say the conclusion is satisfying. Despite the award, this isn't just a teen book. I read an article recently (I'll have to track it down and link to it here) about the ways in which the lines between youg adult and adult fiction are breaking down for the better, and The Book Thief is a good example of this. It took me a while to feel connected with this novel, but I am quite glad that I held on and kept reading. It was worth it.