Here I am, reading another book that I feel utterly unqualified to review. This one I mostly read, and just now finished, on days when I’ve been battling a horrible flu, so forgive me for any incoherency in this review. That being said, I feel that it was almost fitting that I read this novel during a period of sickness, when I was on the verge of hallucination and could almost walk alongside the narrator through the scenes he described.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a novel I wish I had read in high school. This is not to say that it is juvenile in any manner – quite the contrary – but what I mean by saying this is that The Book Thief feels to me like the sort of story that should be experienced by students very early on in their educations. It would’ve been oh so fitting for me to delve into this particular novel during my grade 10 History class, when I first properly learned what the Holocaust was and what that term meant, and I wish I had thought to pick up The Book Thief around the same time I read The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night. The reason that I wish I had been exposed to the story contained in The Book Thief at a time when I was learning all about Hitler’s reign, genocide and World War II is that The Book Thief takes an approach to discussing the Holocaust that is unlike any I have previously encountered.
Of course, Zusak’s story details the wrongful persecution of the Jews living in Germany and many other countries in Europe during Hitler’s reign. Through the character of Max Vandenburg and many other nameless Jewish people, Zusak offers a heart-wrenching depiction of what it meant to be Jewish in Nazi-occupied Germany, of what it meant to hate Hitler, to feel unjustifiably condemned by him, and to live your life secluded in a dark basement for years on end. There are allusions to the grotesque concentration camps and to the suffering of 6 million innocent people. There are references made to the intense hatred and anguish that these innocent people felt toward a man who chose to call himself “leader”, and who was blindly followed. There are certainly moments of horror.
But, what Zusak also chooses to do in The Book Thief, and what I thoroughly appreciated from my role of reader, was emphasize the suffering and turmoil of many innocent German people, those citizens who equally despised Hitler, who were similarly condemned by him, and who met their own tragic ends. Zusak chronicles the life of a German girl, Liesel Meminger, and her relationship with her German foster parents and her German best friend, all the while highlighting the fact that these characters despise Hitler, yet feel powerless to stop or combat him. Certainly Liesel’s foster parents do their best to fight the Nazi regime, particularly by taking Jewish man Max Vandenburg into their basement and harbouring him safely there. However, when Liesel’s foster parents, and her best friend Rudy and his parents, attempt to stand up to the Nazi regime in any meaningful way, they are also persecuted, whipped, beaten, sent away from their families. Although it is made clear many times in the narration of The Book Thief (more on the particular narrative style in a moment) that Liesel and her family members and friends will never suffer in the same horrific way as the Jewish people, they also face their own tragedies and awful, painful deaths. There is no optimism in this tale, and yet the reader is made to understand that Nazi-occupied Germany was Hell not only for the Jews who lived there, but also for the quiet, unsuspecting German people who wanted nothing to do with Hitler and his bigotry and prejudice.
“[Liesel] wondered how many letters like that were sent out as punishment to Germany’s Hans Hubermanns and Alex Steiners – to those who helped the helpless, and those who refused to let go of their children.”
“‘When they come and ask you for one of your children,’ Barbara Steiner explained, to no one in particular, ‘you’re supposed to say yes.’”
Personally, I can’t say I ever gave much thought to what it would feel like to be a German citizen living during World War II. I have, on numerous occasions, read novels that made me empathize and sympathize with the Jewish people who were oppressed, but I never took the time to think about how it would feel to be an innocent German citizen, one who loves and has a kind and gentle heart and must watch as their country is made into a living Hell for so many people. There must have been so much shame and disgrace and desperation in that, and I truly appreciated that The Book Thief offered me the chance to get into the minds of some of these German citizens, to realize just how hard it was for them to witness what their “leader” was doing, how hard that must’ve been to stomach. It also made me question myself and my own convictions: would I have had the courage to open my home to some of the Jewish people, like Hans Hubermann did? If I was a child at the time, would I have been able, like Liesel, to become friends with a Jewish man and risk my life just to say Goodbye to him and hold his hand one last time? Like Rudy Steiner, would I choose to skip my Hitler Youth classes and defy the doctrines and regulations of the time, risking being whipped and beaten and persecuted? I will never ever know, and it is a serious privilege to not have to consider these questions because of the dumb luck of being born in a different time. The Book Thief challenged my perceptions and assumptions, however; it forced me to sit down and think about the people whose perspectives I hadn’t previously considered, and for that reason, it was a highly educational, life-altering and poignant read. This is why I would recommend that any and all high school students read this novel, while learning about the destruction of World War II.
Apart from being a profound and influential text, The Book Thief is also very well written. I don’t know if this is a spoiler (forgive me, but I don’t think it is since you learn about this on page 1) but Zusak chooses Death as his narrator for the story, and in my opinion, this was a perfect choice. Zusak’s Death is much less sinister and horror movie-esque than one would expect, and Death actually tells the tale of Liesel and her loved ones with such sentimentality and feeling that it is impossible not to be drawn to him as a narrator. I found myself empathizing with Death in many ways, as he described having to take away the souls of so many innocent people during World War II. Death is a sympathetic and tortured character in The Book Thief, and it is clear from the start that he hates his job, hates Hitler, hates war and wants nothing at all to do with suffering. It is really interesting to view the events of the Holocaust from this perspective, to see the endless pain and agonizing devastation from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator who is at once complicit in the tragedy but wishes he could be removed from it. Death speaks of Liesel so lovingly that it is hard not to feel sorry for him, it is hard not to wish that he could be exempt from his job, particularly in the moments when it affects Liesel the most. I’m struggling to remember if I’ve ever read a novel narrated by Death before (I feel like I must have, but it escapes me at the moment), but regardless, I can confidently say that Zusak does an excellent job of using Death’s narration as this means to toy with his readers’ emotions and force them to look at the concept of death itself from a totally new vantage point.
I hope some aspects, at least, of this review made sense, but as I said, my reading of The Book Thief was a rather hallucinatory experience. Whether that is because I was feeling sick or because the novel is written in such a hard-hitting, unrestrained manner is hard to say. It seems that Zusak wants to hit right at the reader’s heart, and yes, mine has been weakened recently due to cold and fever…but I have a feeling that even if I was at my strongest, The Book Thief would’ve penetrated right to the depths of my human soul nevertheless.
“I have hated the words and
I have loved them,
and I hope I have made them right.”
❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)
*Although this novel does deal with very mature themes and is vulgar at times, I highly recommend that it be read by high school students everywhere!
Girl with a Green Heart