The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

(Note, books are rated from one to five smiley faces, one being a book I didn’t like very much, and five being a book  I loved.)

I have never been able to wrap my head around the Holocaust. I know genocide is as old as human history, and I know human beings have an incredible capacity for evil, but I think of Germany in the early part of the twentieth century, and I can’t imagine how one crazy man convinced a whole country to hate and to torture and to murder. I think about my own life and the people I have known, because we are not talking here about hating the unknown, hating someone we’ve never met, the way many Americans right now, say, might hate those in the Middle East, having never been there nor met anyone who lives there. That’s inexcusable (and pathetic) enough, but in Hitler’s Germany, people turned against their co-workers, their neighbors, their friends.

How could they do that? I think about all the Jewish acquaintances and friends I’ve had over the years. I can’t imagine ignoring the disappearance of even mere acquaintances. And when it comes to those who are near and dear to me? Well, I would lay my own life down for them. How can you know someone you love is being taken away to be tortured and/or killed and not do anything about it?

That’s why The Book Thief is such a remarkable book. Narrated by Death itself, it highlights how complicated humans are, that we are both capable of incredible kindness as well as incredible horror. This is a fact Death repeats (and demonstrates with examples) more than once in the book. We don’t exactly come to understand how Nazi Germany could have happened (although we are challenged to think about how incredibly powerful words are), but we certainly come to understand that it wasn’t all as one-sided as we might think, something I have always hoped, but we tend to get so few stories that provide verification for such hopes.

Imagine actually feeling sorry for a street in Germany bombed to smithereens, killing almost all its inhabitants. Most Americans (I include myself here) cheer such devastation when we hear about it. Yes, we beat them! We freed prisoners from concentration camps. Hitler’s Germany fell because of us, and that was a very good thing. And yet, here I was, feeling sorry for the Germans (at least, these particular Germans), and that is the beauty of Markus Zusak’s writing.

He helps us see another side of the story. This is a side where we meet ordinary German citizens, living in a crazy world, doing the best they can to rebel, given the circumstances. They hide a Jewish man in their basement. They get whipped for offering bread to poor souls marched through their town on their way to Dachau. They stand up to the leaders of the Hitler youth. They are amazing characters, and you come to love them, even though they are German, those you’ve always considered The Enemy (at least in this particular story, the story of World War II).

I’ve read other books that take this point of view, like Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, but those other books have often seemed like they were trying to convince me. None has ever struck me in the way this one did. Not only is it an original, well-conceived story with characters who are so alive you can hear their hearts beating, but it is also beautifully written. Time and again, I found myself wanting to take down quotes, both for beautiful turns of phrases as well as for the truths they held.

Don’t be stupid like I was. If you’ve been putting off reading this book, because, oh, it’s just been too popular, and, well, you’ve read enough about the horrors of the Holocaust for now, don’t. I promise you: you won’t be disappointed. It deserves every bit of high praise it’s received. What I can’t promise you? That you can remain dry-eyed while reading it.