Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Fiction dealing with the era of World War II is not in short supply. To address this topic with the correct sense of seriousness and respect I think is no easy task. Similarly is it difficult to approach the subject with a fresh perspective, a point of view that adds dimension to what’s complicated—to impress upon readers with new force the grotesque criminality of the wrongs committed, the valor of those who recognized that great evil, and the strength of the downtrodden, whose lives were so terribly taken away. Zusak drives these points into our hearts, and they rest heavy there. We are reminded that this time in the world’s history left hoards of victims, including the unlikely, in its wake.

Zusak, above all, is a poet. What emerges from his words are incredible images (Carl Sandburg): eyes like coffee stains, a tightly knotted rope with a dripping yellow sun, a body like a wardrobe and a face like creased cardboard. The images keep coming. Because of the gravity of the subject matter, I found Zusak’s writing style surprising—not to say that Zusak’s style itself is surprising, but that such a style worked surprised me. +/-

The story is narrated by Death. In instances where Death is the main character, he is usually cruel, greedy, morbid, manipulative, rejoicing in his ability to snatch human lives from their grieving families. Zusak’s personification of Death is ingenious. His Death is empathetic, tired, burdened by his duty. And although he is not kind, he is compassionate. He finds the creatures he carries away bewildering. Humans kill humans, that and chance—he does not. His job begins as their bodies fail, and he carries away their souls, wrapped in warmth. And in the end, we realize something so foreign to the character of Death, that it is equally confusing as it is apparent—Death fears humans. He is the perfect narrator for the story, because fear had prime billing in World War II.

Fear was the weapon, and words were the tool. World War II was fed by a war of words, and the after effects of those words were great because they produced diseased minds. Hitler counted on the illness of his people and on the contagious nature of an epidemic. I think it’s important to note that he was close to succeeding. What power is endowed in words. Liesel, our heroine, discovers that power and teaches us about it.

Zusak’s characters are well written and hard to forget. They are well rounded and have complicated relationships in difficult situations. The story is well developed and is presented in short chapters, with interjected short asides from Death’s omniscient perspective. I will be seeking out other Zusak works.

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