Self-proclaimed bibliophile, culture nut and nerdfighter. English lit. and linguistics geek. Future career in publishing.
They're strange, those wars.
Full of blood and violence -- but also full of stories that are equally difficult to fathom. "It's true," people will mutter. "I don't care if you don't believe me. It was that fox who saved my life," or, "They died on either side of me and I was left standing there, the only one without a bullet between my eyes. Why me? Why me and not them?"
- The Book Thief
The Book Thief is about a ten-year-old German girl who is placed in foster care in the town of Molching, near Munich, during World War II. While in foster care, her foster father teaches her how to read and write after finding out she stole a book. The novel follows her through her time in Molching, from 1939-1943.
Zusak gives us the story of an ethnic German girl rather than a Jewish girl. He figures we've read enough stories about the suffering of Jewish people during the Second World War, and he might be right, I don't know. It is a nice refresher, though, to have a story about the so-called "enemy". I know that many Germans looted the homes of Jewish people once they'd been taken and that no one really did anything to stop the Nazi Party. We can all kind of look back on that time in history as citizens of the Digital Age and wonder how no one could have stopped them. But that's looking for an answer that human psyches can't really provide. We've seen the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram Experiment and the Bystander Effect, and guess what? People like to say that they'd do more in retrospect but no one would. Is that depressing? Maybe, but it's true.
So what does this have to do with The Book Thief? Our protagonist, Liesel Meminger, is both the bystander and the one to intervene. (She doesn't really have anything to do with either SPE or the Milgram Experiment, but those are important for the events of WWII and more, so they are relevant.) Liesel, like so many other German characters that we get in this book, stands by as the Nazi soldiers parade the Jewish prisoners through their town to Dachau. Unlike so many others, Liesel actually grows as a character and as a person so that we can see her shrug off the apathy and actually engage, much like her foster father, Hans Hubermann.
I just think that this novel works well and on so many levels: showing us "ordinary" lives of the civilian Germans, that despite being the aggressors they are still regular people with lives and they're just trying to get by on the tail-end of the Great Depression; bringing a reminder that there were German citizens who hid Jewish people from the Nazis; and putting a spotlight on how war devastates. And I can't forget the bibliophilia that is present throughout!
However, I did find so many issues with the writing that this book could never make it to five stars. The novel is narrated by Death, which is fine and all that, but his own philosophical pondering and
There is something that
I (Death) find interesting
in this little blurb.
You as a reader
really broke up the flow.
There were also parts where I sincerely thought the copyeditor had fallen asleep. Just look at the quotation I used for the beginning of this review: "It was that fox who saved my life" (emphasis mine) -- "who" is only used for people, never animals. Maybe it's the grammarian in me, but that's just not correct usage; and maybe it's the linguist in me, but I've never heard or seen someone use "who" in that manner (until now, clearly). The most common way is to use "that". There are other instances where the verbs didn't match with its antecedent, logically. I would love to just say, "Poetic language! Metaphor!" but that's not how it works. When I have to take a some time to actually decipher what you're trying to say and it's not an actual poem, then we have a problem.
Besides the writing issues I had, I found the rest of The Book Thief to be quite enjoyable and heart-tugging. I think Zusak created some lovely characters (most notably, Rudy Steiner, Hans Hubermann and Ilsa Hermann), even if I think some of them do fall flat. I also think that Zusak manages to keep you interested despite going through four years of Nazi Germany and not much happening. He can really write childhood scenes.
Almost certainly not the best fiction that I've read on the Holocaust or World War II, but still worth the read and enjoyable. I especially recommend it if you are already a fan of Zusak's.