Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Book Review: The Book Thief

" ... I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt - an immense leap of an attempt - to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it...If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I will show you something." 

So says Death, the narrator of Mark Zusak's The Book Thief, a young adult novel about a little girl named Liesel Meminger, and all that she experiences as a foster child living in a poor Munich neighborhood during the swell of Hitler's power.
    At its center, The Book Thief is a story about words;  the power that they hold, and that can be released upon the hearts and minds of the living - the power to build and nourish, as well as the power to enslave and destroy. Liesel discovers that power when her foster father begins to teach her to read and write, and it kindles within her an obsession that not only fuels her desire to obtain words when and wherever she can, but also her hatred of the Fuhrer, and the mastery he holds over them.  When the mayor and his wife discontinue Liesel's foster mother's laundering services, it isn't long before Liesel sets her sights upon the mayor's house and the irresistible library of books within...
    Given the setting of The Book Thief, it's no revelation that things turn dark quickly, and having Death as the story's narrator is fitting. The prologue does well to convey this fact soon, though I found Death's over-use of metaphor to be abstruse and pretentious. This malady does even out after the prologue, however, and for me it made the prospect of 552 pages far more appealing. Zusak's personification of Death was refreshing, and his detached and omnipresent observer of human life was keen in its handling.
    Even within the shadow of World War II, the book's description of young life does well to convince the reader that the characters of the book are real children, all with the innocence of youth that would undermine Nazi propaganda and question its imposed authority with wonder. In one such instance, Liesel's friend, the adorable blonde-haired and blue-eyed Rudy Steiner, paints himself with coal and dashes through the town in an effort to imitate his hero, Jesse Owens, an Olympic competitor. It was both uplifting and saddening when, after being apprehended, Rudy's father explained to him that even though there was nothing wrong with idolizing Jesse Owens, he now lived in a society where it simply could not be tolerated. 
    As one might expect, events become ever more tense when Liesel's adoptive father honors a debt from a long-gone Jewish friend by harboring the deceased man's son, Max, within the safety of the Meminger home's basement.  With the war festering the soul of Liesel's neighborhood outside, she and Max develop a bond based on mutual respect and admiration for the power of words. While Max busies himself  by sketching and writing within his notebook, Liesel serves as an ambassador to the outside world. The warmth of their friendship rises from the pages of The Book Thief, and is a balanced contrast to the spreading devastation throughout the rest of Germany.
    In an uncommon change of pace, the author typically chooses to reveal the outcome of events and character fate well before the end of a chapter, and the reader develops a clear idea of the books ending well before the last page. It's my notion that the end of The Book Thief would be evident to even the greatest optimist, and the author's skill as a story-teller shines with his ability to avoid cliche in making the events leading to the story's end the most valuable. 
    All said, The Book Thief is a heavy read - not only is it a hefty volume to carry about, but the full spectrum of emotional content will linger ever on after the completion of its last page.

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