June 19, 2006

48 Hour Reading Contest: Stealing a Future

I remember when I was eight asking our German next-door neighbor, Petra, if her family were Nazis. I cringe when I think how painful that question must have been, but I had a very black/white version of the world, and German people - even young redheaded ones who offered me cookies - were scary and bad.

YA novels don't often talk about the toll that the Third Reich took on the Germans, which is why the characters in The Book Thief tug so on the heart. Markus Zusak's stylistic prose lays starkly bare the atrocities of war in the toll upon lives and spirit. Not only were the Jewish people diminished, but the Germans as well, and their countrymen, who had to make choices to stand and be struck down, or follow the silent crowd. Repeatedly Zusak crafts haunting passages that make the reader stop; this isn't a story that can be rushed through, only absorbed and swallowed slowly.

Liesel Meminger has many losses. First, her father doesn't come home, and is rumored to be a Communist. Her mother, trying to save her son and daughter, takes a train to Munich to foster them out to someone with more clout in the world, and the ability to feed them. On the way there, Liesel's brother dies. When the burial is over, Liesel stares at the grave, clutching a book one of the gravediggers has lost. It's her first book, The Gravedigger's Handbook, and the last time she sees her brother, and the last time she sees her mother.
It is not, however, the last time she steals a book.
Liesel's world is thin and hungry, her nights full of stalking specters and screaming. Days are a little better, though, and Liesel doesn't know that she's as poor as she could. She is rich in love. She has a friend, the fiercely competitive Rudy. He runs and plays ball with her, and through him, Liesel finds a kind of immunity from the bumps and scrapes of the world. He loves her, and she loves him thoroughly, and they call each other filthy names to show that love. Rosa, Liesel's foster-mother's cheerful swearing is also a kind of love, but best of them all and closest to her heart is her foster-father Hans, whose accordion and gentle presence in the dark of screaming nightmares eventually brings a kind of peace to her narrow world.

Liesel's world opens to her as Hans teaches her to read, painting out the puzzling words on the basement wall, practicing with her day in and day out, until she learns. Soon Liesel knows she must have more books. They are a treasure worth having, so she steals them -- from a Nazi book-burning, from the library of the mayor's wife, from anyone who has one. She shares them with a purpose. The world opens wide for the fearful people during bombing raids, the story captivates the widow down the road who hates her foster-mother and spits on her door daily, and the story is the sky and the stars and daily bread to the Jewish man hiding in the basement at home. Gurgle narrated by Death himself, whose daily walks through Liesel's world allow him to watch her closely, this is an amazing book that leaves you breathless with the pain of the small treasures snatched from someone so young. Less a book about the triumph of life, The Book Thief reminds us of the importance of the ability to feed one's soul through story.

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