I’ve already mentioned in my post of Top Five Books of 2013 that The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak was one of my favorite books read last year. Well, now you get to find out why.
I was a history major in college. Twice. I have always been fascinated by any story that has a historical setting. And I actually took an entire course in college called “Hitler’s Third Reich”. So I knew the general territory of The Book Thief. It’s a coming of age story about a young girl, Leisel, growing up in the crazy world of Germany during the war. But before you stop and balk and say that you don’t want to read about that, take heart of the message that Markus Zusak has for us in his acknowledgements at the end of the book: there are two sides to every story.
This is not a typical “rah-rah Hitler” or “ooo, that evil Germany” kind of story. This is a heartbreaking, realistic story of what it’s like to grow up poor when your country is at war. More than that, when your country is taken over by a tyrant. Because Leisel and her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, are not what we in our Allied countries would think of your typical German citizens of the Nazi era. They disagree with their government but are wary of showing it. They know what can happen to those who disagree.
But that’s not what the story is about.
Here we have a ramshackle, thrown-together family that is rough around the edges and not what we would instantly think of as happy and fuzzy, and through all of their hardship, what do they do? They take in a young, frightened Jewish man, Max, who is sick with guilt because he took the opportunity to run to safety when the rest of his family was dragged off to the concentration camps. Max is bright, creative, melancholy, and scrambling for the meaning of life. Strangely enough, so is Leisel. They form an amazing bond in the absolute worst of circumstances. One that reminds each of them that there are reasons to live.
But that’s not what the story is about either.
Leisel spends those tense years of early adolescence and the dawn and dusk of the war running around with her best friend, a boy, Rudy, who has his own crosses to bear. They are both poor and have to prove themselves around every corner. They take out their aggressions and snatch moments of triumph through stealing. And as they get older, their relationship changes and teeters on the verge of something beyond.
But even that is not what this story is about.
This is a story about words and the power that they hold. It’s a story that demonstrates through the very way that it is told—narrated by Death—that the words we hear and they way we hear or read them has power. Zusak breaks all sorts of rules of fiction writing in the way he tells the story. He gives spoilers about the fates of his characters from the very beginning of the book. He interrupts his own narrative with pictures and details. It’s almost as if he tells the story the way the mind of an eleven-year-old would work. And it’s beautiful!
I can’t say too much more about the story without giving everything away. I will say this: I needed Kleenex when I got to the end of the book. It was just so amazingly good. If you like a story that tugs at your heartstrings, makes you angry and frustrated with the callousness of governments and the sheep that love them, and makes you sigh over the things that people can do, good and bad, then this is the book for you. But don’t steal it. Just buy it.
Okay! I ended the year with an awesome book, and I’m happy to say that I’m starting the year with a really good book too. I’ll probably have it finished to report on by next week.