A Look at The Book Thief

I have just finished perhaps the most interesting book I have ever read. I can't say it was my favorite, but there were so many unique things about it, that I appreciate it on a deeper level than "favoriting."

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is not just another in the long list of young adult Holocaust books. (Goodreads lists 183.) The narrator of this unique story is Death. Yes, the Grim Reaper. When my daughter told me about this book a couple of years ago, that, itself, was enough to get me curious enough to read it. More than any book I have ever read, this story had that elusive literary quality of "voice"--something so hard to explain but beautiful when it's done well. The book has a mournful tone that could only be spoken by one who knows and understands death--even the parts that are not "sad" still feel melancholy.

So, why would one want to read a melancholy book like this? Why would a person want to read about the horrors of history that overwhelmed the world in the early 1940's?

Because The Book Thief is about so much more. It is a different kind of coming of age book--lifechange, maturity, relationships; dealing with abandonment, guilt, and secrets. It is about the power of words--infectious, inflammatory words and passionate, compassionate words. Written words, spoken words, and even unspoken words.

Let me give you an excerpt to whet your appetite: " She was suddenly aware of how empty her feet felt inside her shoes. Something ridiculed her throat. She trembled. When finally she reached out and took possession of the letter, she noticed the sound of the clock in the library. Grimly, she realized that clocks don't make a sound that even remotely resembles ticking, tocking. It was more the sound of a hammer, upside down, hacking methodically at the earth." (p. 259) This metaphorical speech is indicative of the book's interesting style. Here is the narrator speaking about his job: "Five hundred souls. I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I'd throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms." (p. 336) Although the book is full of thoughts of the Grim Reaper, they are not morbid or graphic. You come away seeing the dichotomous position this character is in.

This is what historical fiction does for its readers--provides them with multidimensional characters, complex human emotions, against the backdrop of history. Reading books like The Book Thief is a way to help children understand the pains of war, as well as the reality of events like the Holocaust. And because they are reading about characters their own age, teens come away with a clearer reality of what that part of history felt like.

Not everyone should read this book. I wouldn't recommend it for anyone younger than 13, and even then, it might not be appropriate. There is a considerable amount of bad language (although we are given the German form frequently, so it isn't the same as reading words you know to be socially unacceptable in your own language.) As a Christian, I don’t like the overuse of God's name in the inflammatory sense. And, of course, with a narrator like Death, it destines to be a book with a considerable amount of death, so particularly sensitive teens would be wise to avoid it.

I have always said that Schindler's List is so much more than a movie--it is an experience. I would have to equate The Book Thief to that, as well. Not a fun read, but a rich one.

Again, there are many very well written books about the Holocaust. Here are a few that you might find interesting. I have ordered them by age-appropriateness.

Number the Stars (Lois Lowry)

The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne)

The Devil's Arithmetic (Jane Yolen)

I Am David (Anne Holm)

Night (Elie Weisel)