Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Book Thief

The first surprise was that I found it in the Young Person's Literature section.  This novel had been recommended to me by so many adults that it never even occurred to me that it wasn't a novel for adults.

The second surprise was to find that the narrator was Death.

And what a good narrator Death was.  I felt sorry for Death at times, so much work and so little respite.  But the incongruity of having a Young Person's novel narrated by Death never really left me.

I read this novel immediately after re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird and at first I regretted that.  If I had known that The Book Thief was about a young girl I might have waited.  But it ended up being fine.  I did spend some time comparing the novels - both are coming of age stories and both show how even during times of turmoil the lives of children are still the lives of children.  And both strikingly depict how children see things that adults might have a hard time describing in such a matter of fact way - in many ways Death speaks like a child in this novel. But in general the novels were so different that it didn't matter that I read them back-to-back.

The horrors of Nazi Germany both before and during World War II are narrated by Death as he tells us the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who lives with foster parents outside Munich not far from the Dachau concentration camp.  It is a dark story and although it is filled with hope it is also bleak in the way a truthful tale of World War II must be bleak.  Zusak, in fact, pulls no punches and Death tells us all along that the ending will be bleak.  Since this is the outlook that one might expect from Death, I had a tendency to discount these foreshadowings but of course Death was right.  Between the decisions of the Nazi regime and the might of the Allied bombing campaign, Death was busy during World War II. 

Zusak takes risks with this novel and, for the most part, they pay off.  The novel starts a little slow for my taste, but fortunately I was on a plane with nothing else to do but read and by the time I reached about page 50 I was hooked. 

Like Mockingbird I don't really think this is a novel for young adults, it is just a novel written at a level that they can read.  Occasionally I wished for a different, more sophisticated style, but only occasionally. The sentence structures are simple but effective.  But the subject matter is probably more appreciated by adults.

There are many parts of this novel that I liked, but the thing that I've been thinking about the most is the scene toward the end in which Liesel, who has become an avid reader, destroys a book because she realizes that words are what carried Hitler to power and created the world she lives in; words can manipulate.  And her benefactor, far from being angry at the destroyed book, gives her a blank book and tells her to write her own words.   I liked that.  Words have power and can be used for good or evil purposes.  But if we have words we are empowered.

This was one of my What's in a Name Challenge books - the first one that I've read.  This was my book "with a 'profession' in its title".   I suppose the profession is "thief".   I feel a little bit like I cheated because, while Liesel was a good book thief, she was too young to have a profession.  On the other hand, the challenge didn't say that the person in the novel had to be in that profession as a way to support themselves.