Monday, January 20, 2014

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I never ceased to be amazed at the variety and number of narratives reminding us of the horrors of The Holocaust.  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak was a finalist for the 2007 Michael Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction awarded annually by the American Library Association.  It has hovered near the top of my TBR for a couple of years, and when the announcement of the release of the film came, I moved it to the top.

This gripping story tells of young Leisel Meminger, whose brother has died on a train taking her to a couple in Molching, a Bavarian town near Munich for the duration of the World War II.  The train stops to remove the body for burial.  Leisel cannot bear to leave her brother behind, and she lingers near the grave.  As the time approaches to re-board the train, she finds a book -- The Grave Digger’s Handbook – dropped by one of the cemetery workers.  Leisel cannot read, but the book links her to her brother.  This is the first book she steals.  Zusak sets the story in 1939, and the knowledge of the events just over the horizon, adds a chilling depth to the story.

Her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann welcome the girl to their home.  Rosa, who does laundry for some of the wealthier local families seems annoyed at the intruder, and she quickly becomes a strict taskmaster.  Hans, a painter, immediately develops a close relationship with Liesel, and the two become good friends.  He teaches her to read and write beginning with The Grave Digger’s Handbook.  The story is narrated by death.

As the war intensifies, Rosa and Hans – barely scrapping by -- begin losing customers, food becomes scarce, and soon the war arrives in Molching.  The Hubermanns also shelter a Jewish man trying to escape Germany.  Max also develops a warm relationship with Liesel, and the two read and write in the secrecy of the basement.

Markus Zusak
I marked so many moving passages, I could write numerous versions of this review.  The Book Thief is one of those rare novels when every word touches the soul.  Despite the ominous setting, the terrible events already set in motion, there are passages of tenderness and beauty.  Zusak writes, “Steadily, the room shrank, till the book thief could touch the shelves within a few small steps.  She ran the back of her hand along the first shelf, listening to the shuffle of her fingernails gliding across the spinal cord of each book.  It sounded like an instrument, or the notes of running feet.  She used both hands.  She raced them.  One shelf against the other.  And she laughed.  Her voice was sprawled out, high in her throat, and when she eventually stopped and stood in the middle of the room, she spent many minutes looking from the shelves to her fingers and back again.  // How many books had she touched? // How many had she felt?  She walked over and did it again, this time much slower, with her hand facing forward, allowing the dough of her palm to feel the small hurdle of each book.  It felt like magic, like beauty, as bright lines of light shone down from a chandelier.  Several times, she almost pulled a title from its pace but didn’t dare disturb them.  They were too perfect. // To her left, she saw the woman again” (135).

Heinrich Heine wrote, “Wherever they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn human beings.”  We need reminders of the horrors of war and the terrible depths to which is capable of sinking.  Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief also reminds me how precious my library really is.  5 stars

--Chiron, 1/12/14

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