When I was a freshman in high school we were given the assignment of writing a short story. Our teacher warned us: “Freshmen always want to write bloodbaths. You don’t have to kill people off in your stories.” Nobody told Markus Zusak that before he wrote The Book Thief.
I’m not giving too much away. It shouldn’t be a shock that in a book narrated by death, set in Nazi Germany, there are some casualties. The twists and turns of the story, and the love that develops among the characters had me reading quickly, and I finished the sizable book in five days.
I found it difficult to see past the book’s tragic plot to internalize what seemed to be the intended “moral” of the story: that words are of the utmost importance. The title character begins her obsession with books before she can even read, and her adolescent maturation is linked to the words she reads and writes. The tyranny of Hitler is blamed on his use of language to control and manipulate.
For those of us who live at a temporal and spatial distance from Nazi Germany, it’s easy to reduce Hitler to an evil talking head (talking mustache?) who represents The Worst Thing Ever. While reading it was painful and discouraging to enter a world where people bought what Hitler was selling, and where heroism was a swiftly-punished rarity. Still, after the last page, despite the dismal setting, I was left feeling as if love carries the day.
This novel is creatively written in both content and form. I’ve heard it described as life-changing, and I’m not sure I’d use that term. But maybe that’s because I’m blessed to be accustomed to beauty, creativity and tenderness. The virtues of this book, rather than being a revelation, were simply a reminder.