“The Book Thief” or Why There Is Nothing Banal About Words

Cover of "The Book Thief"

Cover of The Book Thief

Though it may appear that I’ve been spending every waking hour glued to the tube, I haven’t. I swear! Between the laugh tracks, the bitch slaps, and the many screams of the New Jersey Housewives, I’ve been reading. A lot. I’m finally finishing up some books to review (Question to self: Wasn’t that my initial intention?), and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is the first of the long list of titles that will appear shortly on this blog.

If you’re one of the thousands and thousands of people who have already read this beautiful book, please feel free to rave in the comments below. If you’re not, then I can only say that you’re missing out. Big time. I know, do you really need another tear-jerker about  World War II? Yes, yes you do. Because though the topic might be overcrowding the world of fiction, Zusak’s book manages to soar above the exhausted angles of the Holocaust. It’s predictable in the sense that you’ll end up bawling your eyes out in the end. It does hold within its pages certain tropes–the courageous everyday man, the sadistic Nazi, the little girl who can see past the official hatred. There is, of course, a hidden refugee. There is death.

Death is, in fact, the main narrator. Busier than ever, disgusted by what human beings do to one another, he guides us through the story of Liesel. It is one of the instances in which The Book Thief dodges the same-old, same-old checklist of World War II stories, though not the only one. I’m used to being told the stories of the victims, usually through the eyes of them. In this case, Liesel is not Jewish, yet she has had her share of pain under the Führer. Dumped by her mother in the Hubberman household, she’s already lost her communist father, and her younger brother to the Nazis, however indirectly. Yet, Liesel, her foster family, and the majority of her neighbors and friends are faring far better than many of those who were sent to the camps. They are definitely faring far better than Max Vandeburg, the young Jewish man hiding in the Hubberman’s basement. And that is as far as I’ll go in terms of plot. The book is 550 pages long. It would be hard to summarize the intricacies of narrative but more importantly, each word in this book is a discovery made best by oneself.

I can say this, though: a large part of The Book Thief is about words, and their power, a power that can be both terrible and magical. Sometimes both. As Max points out in the story he leaves Liesel, “The Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. ‘I will never fire a gun,’ he devised. ‘I will not have to.” This is a character that can see that the hatred spewed by Hitler is scary because it’s contagious. Even worse, these bullets of destruction, packaged in rhetoric, are accepted with very little thought.

Zusak is quite sympathetic to this often ignored side of the German populace of the time: the regular folk who were just trying to survive. Take his description of Alex Steiner’s (father of Rudy, Liesel’s best friend) political views:

Point One: He was a member of the Nazi Party, but he did not hate the Jews, or anyone else for that matter. Point Two: Secretly, though, he couldn’t help feeling a percentage of relief (or worse–gladness!) when Jewish shop owners were put out of business–propaganda informed him that it was only a matter of time before a plague of Jewish tailors showed up and stole his customers. Point Three: But did that mean they should be driven out completely? Point four: His family. Surely, he had to do whatever he could to support them. If that meant being in the party, it meant being in the party. Point five: Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.”

We all like to think we’d be like Liesel’s Papa and Mama, brave enough to harbor the “enemy” in our house; or like Rudy Steiner (swoon-worthy) who isn’t afraid to shout out his love for Jesse Owens. Deep down inside, though, in that area of our heart Alex Steiner is afraid to scratch, we realize our reaction would probably be as ambivalent as his.

Liesel, of course, through her friendship with Max learns about the poison that can be found in ink, the disease that can be transmitted through speech. It’s why she begins to steal books-in a very real sense, they are power. They’re powerful enough to fight back the horror, to save in a very literal way. As she later says, “When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something but everything.” Stories construct our reality. The Book Thief, an homage to that power, asks us to tell them carefully.

And I’ll leave it at that.

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2 thoughts on ““The Book Thief” or Why There Is Nothing Banal About Words

  1. Oooh this sounds great 🙂 I’ve got this book waiting for me in my to be read pile but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

  2. Oooh this sounds great 🙂 I’ve got this book waiting for me in my to be read pile but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

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