Lately, I’ve been making a concentrated effort to read more YA literature. In my teens and early college years I judged what was then only just being officially labeled as YA as being too juvenile, but I’m here today to recant my former snobbery.
The library has been my greatest ally in exploring all kinds of new literature. A recent trip had me picking up Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Once again, I found myself wanting to know what all the hype was about, providing that the hype had died down a bit, of course.
The Book Thief is actually a perfect example of my previous dismissive habits regarding YA lit. Debuting in 2005, The Book Thief rocketed to the number one spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list. I was fifteen and it seemed that everywhere I looked someone was carting around a copy of this novel. Naturally, my snobbish impulse was to ignore its presence.
Yet if anyone is emblematic of the power of YA, it is Zusack. His writing coaxed laughter, anxiety, and tears out of me with ease. Perhaps Zusack’s greatest skill is that feeling, that illusion, of naturalness: you often forget that someone must have labored over these words while reading this novel and instead find yourself wrapped up in the storytelling rather than the storyteller.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ve come this far, you should at least get a summary.
The Book Thief is about an unlikely family struggling to survive and thrive in the midst of Nazi Germany. Liesel Meminger’s stint as The Book Thief begins with the tragic death of her little brother and the fateful book found in the snow, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Thrust into a new life, Liesel finds solace in her stolen book and its complex words as her kind-eyed foster-father teaches Liesel to read. Soon enough, Liesel is itching to steal again: at the Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s library, or wherever else she can manage. But Liesel’s theivery isn’t the only secret in their household. The family is hiding a Jew in their basement, and Liesel finds her world torn apart and put right all at once as the war reaches a fever pitch.
On the surface, the concept of this novel should be rather difficult: making a slew of characters in Nazi Germany not only sympathetic but heroic and loveable. That is not to say that The Book Thief applies rose-colored glasses–there are a fair number of unpleasant folk in this novel–but that the book suggests that the culpability of a country is not as black and white as history books often portray it.
There’s Rudy Steiner, the blonde boy-next-door whose greatest idol is Jesse Owens. Hans Hubberman, Liesel’s foster-father, whose deep well of kindness often gets him into trouble. And of course, Liesel herself is an undeniably compelling character with her select but firm moral compass that allows her to steal and give tremendously by turns. My favorite character, however, is Death.
Death is the most marvelous and considerate narrator. The boldface asides and mild tangents about humanity are beautifully executed. And there is perhaps no better use of an omnipotent narrator in WW II than Death. As a result, we get to see the fate of characters we may never have known about had the story been told from Liesel’s perspective solely.
In many ways, we are drawn to Liesel as readers because Death is drawn to her. Death’s compulsory love and admiration for Liesel is what allows us to care for her so quickly and in spite of her sometimes morally ambiguous behavior.
Zusack has a way with manipulating language that speaks to the heart of a person. Each turn of the page reveals a clever phrase or a profound image. Most often I’d find myself stunned by Death’s or Liesel’s description of the weather, so casually rendered on the page, but so moving.
“The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.” (12)
Imagery is clearly one of the author’s strong suits.
I’ve yet to read any of Markus Zusack’s other books, but based on The Book Thief, I’d like to read more. I’d give this novel 4 Book Bubbles–A Popping Good Time.