The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.
I probably never would have picked this novel up if it hadn't been July's selection for the Pajiba Book Club, mainly because it is classified as young adult fiction (though it was released as regular adult fiction in its original country, Australia). However, I'm glad I read it.
The story is narrated by Death, an exhausted, overworked Death. As he introduces the story, he explains that for the most part he tries not to pay too much attention to the humans that he crosses paths with during his job, but every once in a while, one of them will attract his attention. Liesel, the book thief, was one such person - in a short period of time, during WWII, their paths cross three times, and for some reason, he notices her. After the last time, she leaves behind a book with her story, and he picks it up on a whim and reads it. Many years have passed but Death now decides to share this story.
As someone that tends to skip ahead to the ending of novels quite a lot, I enjoyed the fact that the ending wasn't much of a mystery - three death scenes, right at the beginning of the novel. He goes into further detail as the novel progresses but the reader knows how it's going to end before it ends. As Death says (and I agree), it's not about the end, but how they get there, the journey, if you will. However, the beginning also jumped around quite a lot and it took me a few chapters to get used to the narrative flow.
As Liesel's story begins, she and her younger brother are on their way to their new foster parents: her mother has been struggling to raise them, and due to Liesel's father's Communist ties, she also must be worried about the possibility that she, too, will be taken away. In fact, nine year old Liesel doesn't even remember her father. Her brother dies enroute, and it is at his funeral that Liesel steals her first book, a guide to gravedigging, clearly dropped by an apprentice. Though she cannot read, this becomes her dearest possession, a memorial to her brother.
Liesel's new foster parents live in Molching, a suburb of Munich and located closely to the concentration camp Dachau. Zusak introduces a variety of colorful characters, including her foster mother, Rosa, who always yells loudly and curses a lot, though this is her way of expressing affection as is soon revealed, the neighbor boy, Rudy, who once painted himself with coal and pretended to be Jessie Owens, and most importantly, her foster father, Hans. He stays awake with Liesel through the nights when her nightmares wake her, and though he only completed fourth grade himself, he teaches her to read during those dark nights. There are neighbors as well, the incredibly militant store owner who strongly supports the Fuhrer, and then others that go along with the party because it is beneficial to them. Hans is not a party member but he has applied to join the party so that fact saves him from being completely ostracized, that and his ability to play the accordion.
Zusak also explains how some people originally supported the idea of getting rid of the Jews, expecting there to be less business competition but forgetting that they would also lose them as customers. Even though the KZ is nearby, for the most part the town can ignore its existence, especially in the beginning. When Rudy and Liesel turn 10, they of course have to join their perspective parts of the Hitler Youth but neither child gets very involved in it. Liesel realizes just how messed up Nazis are after a book burning (where she also steals her second book) and also realizes the negative impact they had on her life and her parents. Rudy is tortured by one of the leaders of his group and as result, he doesn't go for all the propaganda as a young impressionable child might otherwise. Still, there is some tension in Liesel's household - when the Huberman's older children come to visit, Hans and his son have a falling out due to the father's unwillingness to unquestionably support the party while the son is a fanatic.
It becomes even more of an issue in their lives when they begin to shelter Max, a Jew in their basement. The Hubermans aren't trying to make an political statements and are simply trying to get by; however, they also feel strongly about being kind and doing what is right, which is why Hans tended to do the bare minimum. Now that he's hiding a Jew in his basement, he must make sure not to draw anymore special attention to himself. I especially liked how Zusak presented this: the Hubermans were simple people that acted out of compassion. They weren't trying to be heroes.
For the most part, the novel is about Liesel and her family and friends. Liesel and Max develop a very close and tight bond, as both are plagued by nightmares. It's about growing up but underneath, there is, of course, the darkness that is Nazi Germany. Also, Death kindly reminds the readers every once in a while of what is going on elsewhere in Europe and mentions the souls that he must gather as the Germans perfect their methods of killing. The Nazis are a constant looming threat to anyone that acts differently - after Rudy performs well at a race, for example, they want him to attend a special school for gifted Aryan children. While the novel has plenty of incidents of youthful adventures and stealing, Zusak also shows just how guarded and careful everyone must be about how they act and what they say.
As I said, I really liked this novel and I don't feel like I'm coming anywhere near doing it justice. Maybe someone else will be better able to articulate how I felt during the book club discussion. I enjoyed the characters, and I could easily imagine my grandmother's voice when reading about Rosa Huberman's yelling. I've read a few memoirs about growing up in Nazy Germany, such as On Hitler's Mountain, but it's a topic I will always be willing to read more about.