For some reason, when I go to the library I often get out books on a theme, usually unintentionally. A few months ago (because I take a while to read and, more importantly, write), the theme was "books and censorship." Oddly specific, I know. It largely started because of a novel that happened to catch my eye in the young adult section: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, about a young girl who steals books in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death, all sort of things that appeal to me.
First off, it should be noted that this was originally written and published in Australia, for adults. When it was published in the US, the powers that be decided to market it as a young adult book, presumably for the sole reason that the main character fits that demographic herself. Now, I'm certainly not one to say that kids shouldn't read books for adults (very far from it), but just be aware that it clocks in at over 500 pages, does contain some rather brutal violence, and has a decent amount of swearing, both in English and in German (guaranteed to expand your vocabulary!) Oh, also, in case I didn't mention, it takes place in Nazi Germany and is narrated by Death, so, y'know. Bring some Kleenex.
It was actually the Death-as-narrator bit that really piqued my interest. For some reason, I really enjoy stories involving anthropomorphic personifications of death (again, oddly specific). Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" comics, recently A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore... for some reason, that trope really appeals to me. Perhaps it's because of the overriding compassion, that is almost imperative in a character who sees everyone, everywhere die, from old, powerful kings to starving babies in back alleys, perhaps mingled with a touch of gallows humor to keep from going mad. Whatever the reason might be, Zusak's Death fits it to a tee. He or she (Death's gender is never revealed) tells the story in a somewhat non-linear fashion, starting with three encounters with the Book Thief spread out over some four years. At the last of these encounters, Death finds a book written by the thief filling in the story between, and shares it with us.
For it really isn't Death's story, despite it's omnipresence. It's her story: Liesel, the Book Thief. It begins with the death of her brother, as they travel with their mother to a foster home where they will be left as the mother is taken away for being a Communist. After her brother dies and is buried en route, Liesel stumbles across a book that had been dropped in the graveyard. Despite being illiterate, she picks it up and clings to it as something, anything tangible to hold on to while the rest of her life is being taken away. She takes it all the way to her new home outside Munich with her foster parents: Hans Hubermann, a gentle, silver-eyed, accordion-playing house painter, and his wife Rosa, a large, verbally and physically abusive "wardrobe of a woman" who provides much of the aforementioned German cursing. slowly, Liesel builds a life there, involving her best friend, Rudy, a Jewish fist-fighter refugee, Max, the mayor's wife, and many others in the town.
It's a testament to Zusak's writing that he makes us care so much about these characters that even though we know from fairly early on (due the the aforementioned narrator and slight non-linearity) what some of their ultimate fates are that we find ourselves hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe, there's a chance. Maybe Death was mistaken, or not telling the truth, or there was at least some chance for closure or, or, or.... Even minor characters, and ones whose names we don't even know, we hope(mostly in vain) for a happy ending. Because while this may not be Death's story, we do see just how much call there was for our narrator's services in that time and place, both in and out of Liesel's three direct experiences. As Death notes, with no lack of irony or bitterness, no one more faithfully served the Führer. Like I said, bring tissues.
But the story, for all its sadness, is told for a purpose. Ultimately, it's about words. The wonderful, terrifying, awe-inspiring power of words. For, as is pointed out in a fable written by a refugee for our protagonist, it was well-chosen and carefully-tended words that stirred a nation to genocide, and words offered the promise of healing. Throughout the book we see that double-edged power: Taunts on the playground that drive to violence. The kind words in the dark after a nightmare. Illuminating words written on the back of sandpaper and painted on walls. Feared print still smoking from the bonfire. Insults and cursing that belie a deep-seated compassion. Words of hate used to conceal salvation, then painted over and replaced with words of anguish, hope, and love. Weather reports as a connection to an outside world not seen for months. An unthinking, dangerous offer of help. The terrible, regretful words that were never said. Words given as presents, stolen out of windows, read out loud in a bomb shelter, hidden in a mattress, written on a twenty-year-old note, thrown in a river and rescued again, screamed in thoughtless anger, read as comfort to a grieving mother. And ultimately, the newly-created words that saved a life, and caused even Death to pause, kneel amidst the devastation, and read. And re-read.
I suppose it goes without saying, especially to those who know me, that I'm a sucker for books. I have been for as long as I can remember. And the entire reason I'm writing this blog is to get myself to be better with words, because they do have power, for both profound good and ill. The Book Thief really touched a chord in me. Several chords, really. And it made me tear up, which isn't an easy feat. I recommend, even if you're a not-so-young-anymore adult.