The Written Word

Summer Reading: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

When, at a recent book club meeting, the title for the following month’s selection was revealed, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – historical fiction for young adults, I have to admit that I was less than enthusiastic. My thought was that if I were going to spend my flea-sized bit of free time reading, I’d like to read from a genre that stands a little closer to my interests rather than that of my 15-year-old daughter’s. Not only was I wrong, but here also is my plug for book clubs that cause one to read outside the familiar lines.

bookthiefDeath, the narrator of The Book Thief, tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl whose mother takes her to live with the colorful and yet, at times, unsavory foster parents Hans and Rosa Huberman who live just outside of Munich during World War II. En route to Molching, Liesel’s younger brother and traveling companion dies suddenly from the cough racking his small body. The aftermath of her brother’s tragic death propels Liesel’s first book stealing, and the aptly titled Grave Digger’s Handbook, A Twelve Step Guide to Grave Digging Success becomes her link to the past as well as her first of many acquisitions, the “beginning of an illustrious career.”

Liesel’s ensuing life on Himmel Street unfolds in the midst of simple, ordinary people living in a world and time blanketed in the hatred and propaganda of Nazi Germany. Book burnings and brutality exist simultaneously with hiding a Jew in the basement and the heroism of seemingly small and insignificant acts of kindness, like reading to those huddled together in the same bomb shelter. But even more than the dichotomy that permeates Nazi Germany, the reader is exposed to the dichotomy within the individual, the “conversation of bullets” taking place inside. Liesel’s relationships are complicated and messy and yet, reveal the extraordinary bravery necessary for living on Himmel Street in Nazi Germany.

Moreover, Mr. Zusak’s story is about words and books and their power to crush and consume and their power to save. “Amplified by the still of the night, the book opened – a gust of wind,” Death observes, even as other books are being confiscated and burned in great heaps. Mr. Zusak plays with the irony that Hitler’s Mein Kampf saves the life of one young Jewish man, and is then, page after page, painted over in white and re-written to become The Word Shaker, the story of a little girl who resists “the nation of farmed thoughts.”

Finally, Mr. Zusak delivers on his own conviction “that every page in every book can have a gem on it.” In the words of Death, “I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.” Mr. Zusak has delivered a gem indeed.

Jane Beaulieu Cobb lives in the Pensacola area with her husband Chris where they have raised/are raising their six children. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida in English/Writing. Aside from working as business manager for Cobb Woodworking, LLC, Janie enjoys reading, writing, gardening, running, and living in the overall chaos that is the Cobb household. She is a VIE contributor for “The Written Word” column.

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