For details of this read along head to Suey’s blog, It’s All About Books
Having opened this book with little knowledge of what it’s about, other than the fact that it is written from the perspective of death, set in Nazi Germany and is (obviously) about a book thief, I had no idea what to expect. At the beginning I found the writing style difficult to get into. It is not often that I read books written from the second person perspective, and not least the perspective of death, which was quite unnerving at times. However, it certainly didn’t take me long to really get into the novel. I had to physically stop myself from reading on past section three as it was left on such a cliffhanger!!
So, The Book Thief opens with the voice of Death telling the story of a young girl, Liesel Merminger, who he (does Death have a sex?) witnesses three times in his line of work. The first time is in a snow-ridden landscape by some train tracks as she stands by her mother’s side looking down at the motionless body of her younger brother. The second time is at the scene of a plane crash. And the third, last time Death sees Liesel is in the midst of a shower of bombs. She drops a a book she has been writing, which he picks up and keeps with him, returning to it time and time again. It is this story that unfolds before the reader.
‘Yes, often I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt – an immense leap of an attempt – to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it’.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, pg. 24
Key thoughts on Sections 1-3:
Book burning and the power of words
‘She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out, like the rain’.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, pg. 86
Books and the written word held a significant power in Nazi Germany. In order to create a strong, nationalised state it was necessary to destroy any literature that contradicted it. There are many instances of book burning in the novel (one of these events is where Liesel steals her second book) and I remember when I visited Berlin on a school History trip, a few years ago now, we visited Babelplatz, the site of the 1933 mass book burning by the Nazis. In the middle of the square is a glass square set in the ground that looks down into a blank, white library – chilling in its emptiness. Many literary classics, from Thomas Mann to Karl Marx, were destroyed and, in their place, the Nazi’s created and used propaganda, such as Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Ironically, it is Hitler’s book that Hans uses to help Max Vandenburg with his struggle as a Jewish man in Germany. I can only assume from the end of Section 3 that Max hasn’t landed on Hans’ front door by chance.
Liesel steals her first book at the graveyard where her brother is buried. At first The Gravedigger’s Handbook serves as a relic of the family she has lost. But it is this significance that motivates her to learn to read. The subsequent book she steals after this, The Shoulder Shrug, acts as a form of defiance against the state that has orphaned her (or so we can assume from her mother’s absence). By stealing the book from the Nazi authorised bonfire, she is completely aware of the risk she is taking. She is constantly paranoid that she has been seen and will eventually be caught for this act of defiance. It is this risk – of taking her education into her own hands – that I find so remarkable. For a novel that is supposedly branded a ‘young adult’ book, it was refreshing to read about a female character who is intelligent, strong-minded and independent. I am beginning to really feel for this character and, at the same time, I sense a foreboding dread that something terrible is going to happen!
‘It’s pathetic – how a man can stand by and do nothing as a whole nation cleans out the garbage and makes itself great’.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, pg. 111
One of the confrontations that occur in the novel, which I found particularly resonant and poignant, was that which occurred between Hans and his only son. When the family all reconvene for the traditional Christmas dinner, the would-be celebratory events take a turn for the worse. Hans’ son accuses him of cowardice for not becoming a Nazi Party member. From his rhetoric (as shown above) it is clear that he has been brainwashed by the Nazi belief in a superior, German race. The ‘garbage’ he describes is most probably the Jews. It is heartbreaking to see a family broken up in this way, because of, what we now know from the perspective of time to be, the most delusional and barbaric ideology in human history. It will be interesting to see how Zusak approaches the introduction of Max into the Hubermann family – whether this will alienate Hans even further from his loved ones.
The Book Thief is most definitely one of those unputdownable books that has drawn me in emotionally. I am equally intrigued and scared of reading further into the book as Death is, literally, never far behind.