A part of me does not even want to write about this book. As if my attempts at describing it will reduce it down somehow, simplify it too much. The Book Thief is in some ways deceptively simple, written originally for young adults, the language and style are uncomplicated and the plot – the story of a young German girl who moves to a town on the outside of Munich to live with foster parents right before World War II – is very easy to follow. But from the first chapter I could tell that this book wasn’t like anything I had ever read before. For one thing it’s narrated by Death.
This choice, to have a supernatural being, whom is never fully described or explained, narrate the highly politically charged (obviously given the time and setting) novel, could read as a gimmick, a cheapening somehow of the real pain and suffering of the German people (both Jewish and not) under Hitler’s regime, but instead it allows Zusak distance from his characters that may have seemed cold otherwise. And more importantly it allows him to make grand statements about the horror and beauty of humanity without seeming overly bombastic. I got the sense that, just like the twelve-year-old protagonist Liesel, Death was really trying to reconcile how people could be both so awful and so wonderful to each other.
More than just a novel about war, though it’s one of the best of those that I’ve ever read, it’s also a testament to the power, and the limitations of words. Especially through the thoughts of Max Vadenberg, a Jewish prize-fighter on the run, Zusak illustrates very well way that the Nazi’s used words to bring people on to their side. But through Liesel and deep drive to learn to read and write, even when it means stealing banned books from Nazi bonfires, he also shows the redemptive power of stories.
Ok I’m going to stop before I gush even more. But seriously you guys, read this book, but if you are a crier like me, maybe not on the train. You’ll get some looks.
The Book Thief is this fall’s official selection for “One Book One Chicago” click here for more info