The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I didn't plan it, but as it happens two books about Nazi Germany, both of which I have wanted to read, landed on my lap at virtually the same time. I have been reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and The Approaching Storm by Nora Waln simultaneously--fiction and non-fiction about one of the most puzzling eras of history. Can you imagine living in Germany during the 1930's and wondering, "How did we get to this place?"
I'm not quite finished with The Approaching Storm, so I'll save the discussion on that one for later, but reading that book at the same time I was reading The Book Thief has definitely provided added depth to the experience.
The Book Thief has received rave reviews almost everywhere--that's what made me decide to locate the book in the first place--but I have read just enough hesitation and distaste with it (mostly because Death is the narrator of the story) to make me approach it with caution. I didn't have my expectations too high, and I wanted to read it with as open a mind as possible, not prejudiced either for or against it. I will not say that I am the last one to read or review it--I know that is not so--but I wonder if the "newness" of it is wearing off, and if interest in reading it is being pushed aside in favor of newer books? I hope not.
I cried through the last few chapters, and I rate any book that can make me do that as a "real" book. The characters have lived, so their pain is real--real enough to reach out from the page and stab you in the heart. I am most emphatically not sorry to have read this book, but it is has such a hold on me right now (I just finished it this morning) that I'm not sure I can write about it very objectively. So that's what you're getting--my raw impressions of the book, while the tears have hardly dried.
Not until I closed the book after the last chapter was I suddenly struck with the resemblance between the main character, Liesel Meminger, and another one of my fictional favorites--Francie Nolan of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Both books span similar years of the character's age, both live in gritty, less-then-lovely surroundings peopled by strong characters who are neither saints nor devils, but mixed-up blends of good and bad. none so bad but they can shine out for a moment here or there, none so good but that they will succumb to weakness or fear in a bad moment and behave regrettably. There is something about books like this--books where real human beings are set against a background of poverty, hunger, fear, or hatred--that sets human nature in relief, and everyday events, such as kicking a ball, or eating soup, or even just getting out of bed become small acts of heroism and hope.
The more I think about it, the closer the comparisons between the two books become. Can you picture the Nolan family if they were plunked down in Himmel street where Liesel lived with her foster family? They would fit right in. Both fathers are musicians, and although Hans Huberman is a stronger man than Johnny Nolan, they do share some of the same weaknesses. Katie Nolan and gruff Rosa Huberman are not unlike, showing their love in unlikely ways, keeping any softness hidden behind an exterior of hardness because that is what survivors do.
Francie Nolan and Liesel Meminger share a love of words and reading, and I can imagine Francie stealing books to read if she had no way to borrow them from the library. Also survivors, both of them.
I found the literary device of anthropomorphizing death to narrate the book to be a bit of a stumbling block. It was probably the aspect of the book that I liked the least, and yet it does work. I found Death's constant interruptions to the story to be irritating and frustrating, but as I read, I decided that death is very much just that--an interruption to the smoothly flowing story of life. Death is constantly interrupting--telling us things that we would rather not know--and then the story moves on. The interruptions do not stop the story--it goes on. Some people are no longer part of the story, but it goes on just the same, until death interrupts again: a pattern as old as the world.
I had almost forgotten that this book is classified as YA fiction. I wouldn't put that kind of a label on it, unless you would label A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the same way. Both books have young protagonists, but the writing and the themes are timeless. Quiet courage that gets up to the face the day, takes a few hard knocks and yet won't stay down, that fights to live even when life doesn't seem all that wonderful--that appeals to me more than heroics or daring deeds. This book is full of those kinds of heroes--smudged, smelly, dirty, even ugly people who have the courage to risk their lives and livelihoods for their neighbors. Like the good Samaritan, they aren't the ones you expect to do fine things, but sometimes they do, and those fine things shine all the brighter because of the bleak surroundings, like a diamond ring glinting in a muddy ditch.
If you haven't read it yet...don't miss this one.