If you’ve spoken to me at all in the past few weeks, odds are you’ve already heard me mention The Book Thief by Markus Zusak at least once. And if you’ve picked up a newspaper, or a review journal, or glanced at anyone else’s book blog, you’ve probably read at least one review of it. Everybody, everywhere is talking about it. Which is the main reason I’ve been reluctant to talk about it here. But I must. This is that kind of book. It just will not leave me alone. This book does not lie down quietly in the subconscious – it stomps around the frontal lobe and bangs its fists on the inside of the skull. The copy I’ve had checked out for waaay too long has utterly refused to let me return it until I write some of this stuff down. So, okay already…
If you don’t already know, this is the story of one German girl living just outside Munich during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Her story is being told to you, directly, by Death. Yes, that Death (but he’s quick to inform you that he doesn’t actually carry a scythe). He meets Liesel three times during her life, as he’s collecting souls nearby, and even though he tries to never get involved with the living, he is somehow so impressed by her that he carries her story with him forever after.
I really don’t want to tell you much more than this, because I think you’ll be impressed with her too. And with her foster father Hans, and her best friend Rudy, and with Max the Jewish fistfighter – they are all extraordinarily rich characters, beautiful in their complexity. And the language is amazing – alternately crude and lyrical, sometimes breathtakingly poetic. For the most part, I liked Death, too – although at one point I did get a little annoyed at his asides to the reader and how he keeps telling you about a certain character’s death before it happens. But he is astute, and funny – kind of like a much-less-full-of-himself Bartimaeus from Jonathan Stroud’s trilogy. Here’s his description of Rudy’s father (and an example of the kind of crisis of conscience a lot of the characters face):
***THE CONTRADICTORY POLITICS OF ALEX STEINER***
Point One: He was a member of the Nazi Party, but he did not hate the Jews, or anyone else for that matter.
Point Two: Secretly, though, he couldn’t help feeling a percentage of relief (or worse – gladness!) when Jewish shop owners were put out of business – propaganda informed him that it was only a matter of time before a plague of Jewish tailors showed up and stole his customers.
Point Three: But did that mean they should be driven out completely?
Point Four: His family. Surely, he had to do whatever he could to support them. If that meant being in the party, it meant being in the party.
Point Five: Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.
This is not an easy story to tell, or to read. All the heroes are flawed, and there are no easy answers to questions of conscience. It’s beautiful, yes, and funny, but at times it’s gruesome and very often it is so incredibly sad. But it is, ultimately, a story of strength and hope. It’s a story that says, yes, there is definitely Evil out there, and a lot of the time Evil is in charge. But there are always small, unassuming pockets of Beauty and Goodness and Love, and occasionally a couple of those pockets will find each other, and a bigger pocket is formed, and it’s not very much… but sometimes it’s just enough.