Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Year in Books: The Book Thief

“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

I received multiple recommendations for this book before I finally picked it up off the shelf. The title intrigued me right away, but I was a little nervous about the setting: Nazi Germany, 1939. All other books I’ve read about the Holocaust have been downers, but I decided to give this one a shot anyway. And I absolutely do not regret it.

Liesel is nine years old when she steals her first book. She discovers The Grave Digger’s Handbook in the snow after her younger brother’s burial and takes it with her to her new foster family’s home. Her foster father begins teaching her to read, and she falls in love with words. Over the next few years she steals books from the mayor’s wife’s library and Nazi book burnings. Liesel’s life becomes even more dangerous when her foster family hides a Jew in their basement. She must keep the secret from everyone, including Rudy, her best friend who loves to accompany her on stealing missions. All the while, war rages around them, and Liesel sees how ugly—and yet how beautiful—the world can be.

First of all, this book is completely different than anything I’ve ever read. It is written in postmodern style, which means eclectic, nonlinear, and (for lack of a better term) unique storytelling. There are no chapters; instead, the book is broken up into sections labeled with the title of each book Liesel steals/receives/is reading at the time the events occur. Within those sections, there are subdivisions (more like chapters) that last anywhere from half a page to eight or nine pages. When Max, the Jew hiding in Liesel’s basement, writes a small book for Liesel, the artwork and stories are pasted right into the book. Small footnote-style pieces of information interrupt the narration, providing the reader with more background. They look something like this:

* * * HERE IS A SMALL FACT * * *
You are going to die.

This is the first of many thoughts inserted into Liesel’s story by the narrator. The synopsis on the back of the book doesn’t clarify this, but the narrator of the story is Death. Once you realize this, the story becomes a lot easier to navigate. Because of its postmodern style, I was a little disoriented in the beginning; Death does not clearly lay out the characters, plot arch, and conflicts as many other (and sometimes inferior) stories do. But that’s what kept me reading. I wanted to find my bearings and learn about Liesel and her accordion-playing foster father and her aggravating foster mother and how they wound up with a Jew in their basement and their strange viewpoints of the world.

THE BOOK THIEF is a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, an award that recognizes a book that “…exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature” according to the official website. I’ve read several other Printz winners and honor books, and I believe THE BOOK THIEF belongs in this category. It is unique, both in its plot and presentation, and Zusak’s prose is to die for. This is one of those books everyone needs to read, so go snatch it off a bookstore shelf right now! Or maybe if you’re very lucky, I’ll lend you my copy.

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