Friday, November 19, 2010

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of those rare treasures, a truly literary young adult novel.  Liesel Meminger is taken in by a couple during the early stages of World War II.  During her journey to her new home, her younger brother dies and, at his burial, she finds and “steals” a book on grave digging.  This seminal moment–being left behind by hr mother, losing her brother–define her actions throughout the rest of the novel as she tries to feel her way through a situation that is frightening and incomprehensible.

Death is the narrator and tells the story of Leisel and the people in her life with the dispassionate emotional distance one would expect from the grim reaper.  There are moments where humor comes through and these moments of light, whether expressed through the wry wit of the narrative voice or the experiences of the characters themselves, keep this novel from becoming too horrific.

Ultimately, this book is a celebration of writing and the written word, a reminder that reading has a redemptive and healing quality and that the stories we share are both personal and profoundly universal, if we just take a moment to listen, to hear.

Zusak manages to avoid many of the World War II clichés one finds in novels.  Instead, he creates a world of characters that all have stories of their own, and weaves them together in a way that is reminiscent of the plot intricacies of Dickens and Hugo without any of the tedium.  The individual motivations of the characters are so clearly delineated that you understand every move they make even when you do not agree with them.  And the ending is both tragic and satisfying.

This book left me breathless and is one I will not only want to read again but will buy for my grandchildren.  If I were teaching, it would be a book I’d fight to have in the classroom.  I can’t remember the last time I read a young adult novel I love as much as this one.

(However, let me confess that I wasted half the book trying to understand something I saw at the beginning of the novel.  By the halfway mark I realized that I was still not sure what the strangeness symbolized and, unable to find the meaning in the metaphor, I broke down and looked at amazon.com’s Look Inside feature only to discover that this “strangeness” that I couldn’t understand was not a metaphor but a printer’s error.  For that reason, I suggest that you buy a new copy or a later edition so that you don’t waste any time trying to understand something that has no more meaning than this: the printer made a mistake.)

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