DISCLAIMER: This is a juvenile attempt to capture the essence of Markus Zusak’sThe Book Thief.
As soon as I finished reading The Book Thief, I had a strong urge to write a “review.” I put it in quotes because I feel like this will merely turn out to be a long note on Markus Zusak’s award-winning novel. Either way, I am thunderstruck.
How do I determine the worth of a book? I look at five significant things: title, synopsis, opening paragraph, the ending, and the overall layout of the book. These are merely ‘technical’ aspects of the book, and I use these to gauge how engulfed I would find myself in reading the book. Sometimes, the title alone is enough. The Book Thief passed all requirements with flying colors.
The title. There is something about the idea of thievery that pulls me like a magnet. There is an air of mystery and adventure about it that I could not resist. By questioning the character’s motive for stealing books I have already plunged into the plot, head first. “The Book Thief” sounded so simple yet intriguing. A few people have asked me, “What are you reading?” “The Book Thief.” They would chuckle and say, “So what’s it about? A person stealing books?” I would chuckle back. “That, and then some. It’s a historical fiction about the Nazis.” That would render them speechless, and they would leave me alone.
The synopsis. What is it about The Book Thief that drove me nuts? The first two lines in the back cover say, “It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.” It sounded dark and heavy, especially upon the mention of Nazi and Death. That, however, is just the first piece of a giant 3-piece puzzle. The second piece is this: The Book Thief tells the story of a little girl named Liesel Meminger whose life dramatically changed when she found “something black and rectangular lodged in the snow” near her brother’s grave. It was a book called The Grave Digger’s Handbook, and it was the first jewel she laid her hands upon. In the care of her foster family, the Hubermanns, Liesel learned how to read. Her love for words fueled her acts of thievery, and she soon found herself in the most dangerous places at the most dangerous hour of her life. And the third piece? Liesel’s story is told from the point of view of Death. Sweet.
The opening paragraph. The first chapter of the Prologue is entitled “Death and Chocolate.” Death introduced his story with four lines. “First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.” The next two lines were typed in bold. “HERE IS A SMALL FACT. You are going to die.” Needless to say, I ended up reading all 4 chapters of the Prologue in a little corner of the bookstore. The fourth chapter called “The Flag” compelled me to read some more. (In other words, take The Book Thief home.) Death states, “Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own light. Each one an attempt – an immense leap of an attempt – to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it. Here it is. One of a handful. The Book Thief. If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I’ll show you something.” And so I listened to Death’s story.
The ending. When I say ‘ending,’ I mean the last line of the story, that group of words that will satisfy my hunger for reading. Some of you might think I’m crazy (which I probably am) because I’m defeating the purpose of savoring the story from cover to cover. I generally don’t care about the ending. I am after the events that led to the ending – the core of the story. In The Book Thief, Death concludes his tale with, “A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR. I am haunted by humans.” How I love the poetry in those words! It is the kind of ending that leaves me speechless, that makes me want to put the book in a glass case that you see in museums. Death’s last words make The Book Thief not only Liesel’s story, but Death’s as well.
The overall layout. Being the artsy fartsy girl that I am, I enjoy reading books that present the story in a non-traditional, inventive way. I enjoy looking at various fonts and indentations. (Yes, I am peculiar that way.) The Book Thief has a Prologue, an Epilogue, and ten chapters that are further divided into sub-chapters. In each section of the story, Markus Zusak provides the readers with a fresh perspective and ends the chapter with lines that get you more hooked to the story with each passing minute. Because the story is told in the point of view of Death, traditional narrative is juxtaposed with thoughts and commentaries of Death that either provides a vital key to the previous paragraph or foreshadows the events to come. These thoughts and commentaries, typed in bold, reinforces the omniscience of the narrator. Embedded in the story are 2 wonderful tales of Max Vandenburg – The Standover Man and The Word Shaker – that are complete with handwritten fonts and illustrations. The edition that I bought has 550 pages, but because the story is chopped in a way that a chapter is two (sometimes one-and-a-half) pages long, you will find yourself devouring the entire book in one day.
While some books are considered New York Times # 1 Bestellers, The Book Thief was labeled “The Extraordinary New York Times # 1 Bestseller” because that is exactly what it is. Extraordinary. The New York Times described The Book Thief as “brilliant and hugely ambitious… It is the kind of book that can be life changing.” Markus Zusak’s brave attempt to write a fictional tale about one of the most ruthless times in the history of the world is an effort that paid off and exceeded expectations. He grabs a valuable piece of history, mixes it with dark humor, and concocts a war story that is bearable to people of all ages.
The Book Thief is probably the best book I have read in 2009. A timeless classic.