Thursday, June 13, 2019

Book 185: The Book Thief

"Although something inside her told her that this was a crime—after all, her three books were the most precious items she owned—she was compelled to see the thing lit. She couldn't help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that's where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate."

Dates read: October 25-30, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Over the past several months (writing from the end of 2017), there's been no small amount of debate over what it means to be complicit. Ivanka Trump asserted that she's not complicit in her father's presidency, which she wouldn't necessarily be as a daughter, but she pretty clearly is as a senior advisor in his administration. There's a growing awareness that to be privileged in a system that's beneficial to you, whether or not you are an active architect or proponent of it, without taking action for marginalized people also flirts with the line of complicity. No one likes to feel complicit, so we try to find ways to weasel out of it, to find people more actively involved with whatever it is, point the finger at them.

One of the biggest open questions of complicity in the last century is that of the German population under the Third Reich. I suspect, like most things, it fell in some sort of bell curve...some citizens were opposed, some were supporters, and most fell somewhere in between, trying to survive by keeping their heads down. Markus Zusak's The Book Thief takes us to a small village in Germany during World War II and lets us see that spectrum play out. A young girl named Liesel and her brother are brought by their mother to foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, because their mother can no longer afford to keep them with her. On the way, though, her brother dies, and this is what brings Liesel to the attention of Death.

Death is our narrator, and when the illiterate Liesel snatches a book off the ground as her brother is buried, he (it?) dubs her "the book thief". Liesel doesn't actually steal very many books during the course of the story, but it fits well enough. For a while, as Liesel grows to know and love her rough-edged, foul-mouthed foster mother and gentle, patient foster father who teaches her to read, and makes friends with her neighbor Rudy, their little town is isolated from larger events. But the real world can't be avoided forever, and World War II sweeps over the Hubermann household, bringing a Jewish man into their basement to hide and constant danger lurking everywhere.

The villagers' attitudes toward Nazism range from passionate true believers to the Hubermanns, who resist joining the Party and hide a Jew for months. Many of their neighbors go along as far as they need to to keep out of trouble. I don't think this is a perspective we see very often, looking at the ordinary people who exist in these regimes, and so I found it interesting to read. Zusak's characterizations of everyone who populates the village are a highlight...Liesel herself is probably the least well-developed character, but Hans, Rosa, Rudy, and several of Liesel's other classmates make vivid impressions and linger in the memory even after the book is closed.

But even though this book tends to get rapturous praise, there were some places where it fell flat, too. I think the Death-as-narrator trick worked less well than it could just struck me as more gimmicky than meaningful and never really developed. I think the constant interjections into the text as "explainers" by Death were overused, and I think Zusak's writing is sometimes overly focused on going for "wow" instead of letting itself flow. As a whole, though, these are minor quibbles. The book is very good, with vivid and developed characters living in a well-drawn community, and the ending has a big (and earned!) emotional impact. It's well-worth reading and I'd recommend it widely, to everyone.

One year ago, I was reading: Love Medicine (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Man Without A Face

Three years ago, I was reading: Zodiac


  1. Great review! I love this book so much that I wrote my grad school thesis on it. I’d probably be fine with never reading it again, though. I had to read it a zillion times to write that massive paper.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. Thanks! And yeah, I have to imagine that reading something as many times as you must have would put you off another re-read ever!