by Andrew Palmer
Every so often you read a book that you know will always stick with you. This is one of those books. The Book Thief had been on the New York Times Children Bestsellers list for over 5 years (The Times finally figured out a several months ago that there is a difference between young adult, middle school and children’s books. As of right now, it’s still on the young adult list.) Having now read the book, I think I understand why.
One of the most unique features about this book is the narrative voice. It is actually told from the perspective of the Grim Reaper as he tells the story of the book thief, Liesel Meminger. As he tells us in the end of the book, “There’s a multitude of stories that I allow to distract me as I work…” We usually conceive of the Reaper as this evil, hate filled creature. Instead, the Reaper in the book really just has a job to do. When we die he comes to harvest our souls. Sometimes we humans like to create a lot of work for him. It makes him a little cranky. The voice is brilliant, and it really makes this story work in ways that are not possible with a normal first or third person narration.
A good example of this voice comes from the chapter “Death’s Diary: 1942” that begins part six of the book. “A SMALL PIECE OF TRUTH: I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold. And I don’t have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance. You want to know what I truly look like? I’ll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue.”
The structure of this book is unique. There are ten parts, a prologue, and an epilogue. Each section of the book is split out into small chapters. Most of the chapters of this book are quite small. Each chapter is then split into numerous smaller sections. There is an insane amount of page breaks in this book. In addition, there are these weird bold sections in each. The only way I know to describe them is to call them important announcements from the Grim Reaper as he tells the story.
Markus Zusak’s writing is amazing! He uses words in ways that sometimes just makes you stop and want to reread because the usage is so appropriate to what is happening in the book. The word choice is very impressive. It is writing that carries you effortlessly to the end of this 552 page text. Once at the end, you want to pick it up and do it all over again.
The title of the book comes from the main character, Liesel. She is, as death names her, a book thief. At the beginning of the book, she is not very literate. With the help of her foster father, she begins to read the first book she ever stole. So begins her love of words and books. As the story goes on, her book thievery plays a prominent role in the story to the backdrop of the events of Nazi Germany and World War II. Over the course of the story, Liesel’s foster parents take in and hide a Jew. This subplot takes a very prominent role in the middle of the book and has a large effect on the character development of Liesel.
I was struck by one of the things that Zusak did in the middle of this book. All of a sudden at the start of part five the Reaper just up and tells you the end of the story. It’s an interesting exercise in something good readers know, we don’t just read for the end of the book. As death states: “Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it….I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.”
The main theme of this book can be summed up as the importance and the power of words. It also is a brilliant commentary on the confusion that can be humanity. We are capable of such great beauty, but at the same time we can be capable of such evil. History is full of stories that demonstrate both. I hate to give the end of this book away, but the closing passage demonstrates the point quite well.
“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant….All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know…A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR: I am haunted by humans.”
There is a little mature language in this book.