Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This is an emotional story about a young girl living in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.  Liesel Meminger is the Book Thief alluded to in the title.  The novel is narrated by death, which keeps us constantly focused on mortality at a time in history when there is a lot of suffering and death.  Death has the task of separating their souls from their bodies and carrying them away.  He tells us at the beginning of the book that this is a tragic story and many of the people we will come to love will die by the end of the book.  When Liesel's foster parents decide to give refuge to a young Jewish man hiding from the Nazi regime, the characters grow and change in horrible and beautiful ways.

This is a very powerful and emotional book.  It absolutely destroyed me when I read it.  It focuses on characters who are learning to love in the face of great hatred.  It is steeped in war, where warfare shapes the characters' lives and impacts their choices.  It deals with issues of identity.  A Jew in Nazi Germany had to stay hidden in order to stay alive.  The book's non-Jewish characters refuse to identify with the Nazis and forge new identities from friendship, love, and resistance to injustice.  It forces us to examine our ideas about crime and criminality.  Since the law of the land in Nazi Germany requires its citizens to commit crimes against humanity, the main characters here decide to err on the side of kindness and love--regardless of what the law says.  And it deals with the theme of language and communication.  In many ways, the Holocaust was a war fought with words. It relied on mass communication technology to convey its message of hate and to mobilize a nation in its service. But, The Book Thief focuses on using language to heal, to save, and to fight against injustice. It expresses a belief in the power of language to make a positive difference in the world.  And suffering and guilt over the loss of loved ones is a major focus of this book, as well as the great courage displayed by these characters in resisting unjust laws.

But perhaps the most important theme in The Book Thief is the power of books.  Reading isn't just a matter of loving books.  We have to be sure not to take them for granted--and this is something this book reminds us of again and again.  Liesel didn't have the luxury of going to a library and picking out her books, she had to steal them, and even save some from malicious fires in order to read them.   Even today, when a lot of us can browse through entire libraries with the click of a button, there are still people who don't have access: maybe they can't afford books, or maybe they never even learned to read.  Zusak's choice to portray the excitement and influence of books in the context of the Holocaust shows just how powerful they are.  When the Nazis burned books, they were in essence burning the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. Each of the books that Liesel steals represents a glimmer of hope – for her, for the Jewish community, and for the post-Holocaust world.

The movie made from this book will be released next month.  Here is a clip.  In the meantime, do yourself a favor and read the book.  Just keep a box of tissues handy.  You might need them.


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