The Book Thief by Markus Zusak tells the life of Liesel Meminger, a girl growing up in Germany during WWII. Throw in her hobby of stealing books, her accordian-playing foster father, a jew hiding in the basement, and you have an engrossing story about the colorful residents on Himmel Street, Nazism, war, and the power of words.
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.
Some quick facts about me to help you fully understand why I very much adore this book:
- Nazism fascinates me- not so much the concentration camps or human cruelty, but more the propaganda and brainwashing
- I like books and I also believe in the power of words (see previous post)
- I like sad stories where there is a realistic ending
Now then, let me lavish you with all the things I love about The Book Thief. This is a very long post.
Death is the narrator.
Please, trust me, I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
It is a stroke of genius to have Death narrate this novel. You can’t find a supposedly more honest and impartial narrator. Zusak admits that he first scrapped this idea because Death’s tone had been too cruel and sardonic. In the end, he altered the tone. The final product is a voice that is indifferent yet attracted, cold yet sympathetic, and lays out the simple truth- all the things I believe Death should sound like if it has humanistic elements.
They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly: ‘Get it done, get it done.’ So you work harder. You get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.
Here’s the thing about having Death narrate: he is busy. Therefore, you can expect Death to cut to the chase. Someone dies? You’ll know ahead of time. It’s not a shocking fact, considering what this book is about. Don’t be too worried though! Having Death foreshadow a character’s death is not as big of a killjoy as it sounds. In a way, it does add on to the suspense of when it will happen and how, consequently making all the developing events and dialogue even more precious or important.
In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief’s kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.
Rudy Steiner dies.
The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you.
He is my favorite character and, coincidentally, he is also Zusak’s favorite character. Like Zusak, my love for Rudy began after the scene where he paints his skin black and runs around the field, pretending to be Jesse Owens, the American track athlete who outran the German representative during the 1963 olympic games. I find this little past to be very amusing, considering that Rudy represents Hitler’s “master race”.
Being blonde and blue-eyed with an above-average athleticism and intelligence (though often overshadowed by his childish stupidity), Rudy is the spitting image of the Aryan race. This is a key characteristic that makes Rudy an interesting character since he never ends up conforming to Nazi culture.
All three pried their hands from their penises and held out their arms. Rudy did not feel like he was part of a master race.
Rudy is Liesel’s best friend and childhood love. He is one of those bratty boys you can’t make yourself hate, partly because of his charming cheekiness. As mentioned above, Rudy dies, signifying the demise of childhood, gallantry, and innocence. Even Death shows signs of sympathy at Rudy’s death. And as sick as this sounds, I like that Rudy dies. Not because I wanted him to die, but because he is the person who least deserved to die that his death sends home a message. That itself, is a realistic depiction of what happens in war and in life.
He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.
Killing and Saving with Words.
The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this.
Keep in mind this is a young adult book. For its target reader, Zusak explains Hitler’s reign as the result of powerful words. Max, the jewish fist-fighter hiding in Liesel’s basement, explains the rise of Hitler to Liesel through a painted storybook titled Word Shakers.
He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany…. It was a nation of farmed thoughts.
I especially liked the scene where Max fantasizes about fighting Hitler in a boxing ring with Joseph Goebbels as Hitler’s coach, whispering advice into his ear before the match. Even though Max beats Hitler in the one vs. one fight, Hitler uses his powerful words to move the audience into fighting Max.
In the basement of 33 Himmel Street, Max Vandenburg could feel the fists of an entire nation. One by one they climbed into the ring to beat him down. They made him bleed. They let him suffer.
Liesel soon learns that the Fuhrer and his words is what has stripped her of her happiness in life. As the war rages on and Liesel finds her short-term happiness taken away, she begins to resent words and understand how powerful they can be.
You bastards, she thought.
You lovely bastards.
Don’t make me happy. Please, don’t fill me up and let me think that something good can come of any of this. Look at my bruises. Look at this graze. Do you see the graze inside me? Do you see it growing before your very eyes, eroding me? I don’t want to hope for anything anymore. I don’t want to pray that Max is alive and safe. Or Alex Steiner.
Because the world does not deserve them.
While a majority of the book focuses on the dangers of words, Liesel is also a character that represents the joys words can bring. As an orphan, Liesel had difficulties becoming literate and was ridiculed by her classmates. Her passion to read is supported through her habbit of book-stealing.
Many of the events in the story that offer a glimpse into the happy times in Liesel’s life involve books and words: learning how to read with her foster-father, reading and writing in the basement with Max, visiting the library of the mayor’s wife, and reading books to her neighbors during the bomb raids. Her first stolen book was at the event of her younger brother’s death, which had initially added onto my theory that books and words were linked to death. But Liesel’s writes her own book when Himmel Street suffers from a bomb attack, leaving her to be the sole survivor as she was in the basement during the attack. Therefore, you can also very much argue that books and words save Liesel’s life in the end. All that, and it is evident that this theme offers two sides: words can kill and words can save.
I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.