The Book Thief Markus Zusak
Book Review • The following is a review on The Book Thief • Below each heading there is information on the text and a discussion question which must be answered in paragraphs in your books. • You may discuss the questions with a partner, however, I want you to think deeply about the questions and answer them using both your own ideas, that of the reviewer and evidence from the text. (QUOTES) You will need your copy of the book thief to do this.
The Author Australian Markus Zusak was born in 1976, the child of German parents. He authored four other novels before The Book Thief – all of them classified as ‘young adult’ Zusakwrote The Book Thief in response to a series of stories his mother told him of growing up in Munich during the Second World War, including that of a teenage boy giving a piece of bread to a marching Jew. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald he said: “We have these images of the straight-marching lines of boys and the ‘HeilHitlers’ and this idea that everyone in Germany was in it together. But there still were rebellious children and people who didn’t follow the rules and people who hid Jews and other people in their houses. So there’s another side to Nazi Germany. For discussion: When an author is motivated by a need to ’set the record straight’ what might the dangers be? Do you see any of this in The Book Thief?
Genre The Book Thief is classified as a Young Adult novel but its phenomenal international success is due to it ‘crossing over’ into the adult market. Like most books in this genre the historical landscape is the backdrop of a coming-of-age story. The trials and tribulations of being a young person in a hostile world are the primary concern of YAs. Despite the extra-ordinary circumstances that the young protagonists endure, the ordinary spheres of home, neighbourhood and school are the source of most of the conflict in this book. • For discussion: How might this primary function of a YA novel affect the plotting and character choices of an author? What pros and cons do you see in The Book Thief? How does the historical landscape affect the ‘coming of age’ plotline? Consider the age of Liesel (10 – 14); what impact might this have on plot choices?
Characterisation Zusakprovides us with a colourful cast of characters, carefully chosen to present a cross-section of Germany during the period. We see Jews, Nazis, rich, poor, soldiers, civilians, young and old. Liesel, of course, is the lynch-pin of the story and all of the characters impact upon her in some way. By choosing to have her introduced to Himmel Street as an outsider, we get to know the people in her life as she meets them. I don’t think the same thing could have been achieved as easily if we had her born and growing up there. Also, of course, by setting her up as a wounded outsider, welcomed by the people of Himmel Street, Zusak allows her to be a kindred spirit to the desperate Max. It also allows us to see her foster parents as people who will ‘do the right thing’ despite the requisite sacrifice. Although the female characters are memorable (Rosa, MrsHoltzapfel, the mayor’s wife) it is the male characters we are most drawn to – Hans, Max and Rudy. A trite explanation would be that Zusak is a man and so has more sympathy with them; but I’d like to think it’s more than that. Zusak is a father and if the warmth with which he sketches Liesel’s relationship with Max and Hans is anything to go by, he’s a good one. Speaking of Max, I found that relationship at times uncomfortable to read. At 24, he was a young man spending sometimes whole nights alone with a young teenage girl. Perhaps it’s a sad indictment of the world we’re in, where every man is viewed as a potential paedophile, but I couldn’t help wondering about the appropriateness of it. However, I applaud Zusak for not backing away from it.
Characterisation Continued Let us not forget our charming narrator: Death. Just like everyone else in The Book Thief at times, he is presented against type. When I first picked up the book I feared it would be like Terry Pratchett’s ‘Mort’, with Death’s apprentice as the narrator, but I knew that I was with a complex and benevolent being when I read: ‘It’s the leftover humans. The survivors. They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions, I still fail.’ (The Book Thief, p15). • For discussion: Which characters in The Book Thief represent ‘type’? Consider which of them Zusak has chosen to subvert. In other words, how are our preconceptions challenged through his characterisation? And yet others are simple cardboard cut-outs. Which ones? Why?
Plot and structure Towards the end of the book Death tells us that he has a ‘circular heartbeat’ and is cursed to be beyond time. That explains his character’s need to tell us the end before we’ve reached it. But why does Zusak do it? This book starts with a series of visions of what’s going to happen to Liesel. We know the end before the book’s barely begun – we know who’s going to die and who’s going to live. Each chapter and section is also prefaced with a summary of the main points, like the cue cards in a silent movie. The tension in most books is achieved when the reader wonders what’s going to happen. Apart from a few instances (Zusak keeps us hanging on about Max’s fate until almost the very end) this does not happen in The Book Thief. And yet it is still a tension-ridden book. • For discussion: How does Zusak establish the rise and fall of tension despite his narrator having a compulsive need to tell us what happens in the end? What are the strengths of this approach? What are the dangers? What does the choice of Death as narrator contribute to the book?
Style In a book narrated by Death, I was surprised at all the colour. Zusak uses the pages of this book to paint a picture in every possible colour. Similes and metaphors are communicated in colour and emotions too. I wonder if he is synesthetic. It is the poetic language of The Book Thief that lifts it from the populist to the literary. This is a post-modern book – not in telling, but in style. The story is conventional, but the author’s recurring references to books, the nature of books and the power that words have to enslave or set us free, repeatedly brings attention to the nature of reading and writing and that the story we are involved in is a literary construct. The delightful hand-written books and sketches, the references to the dictionary definition of words, the stolen books from the library, the development of Liesel from illiteracy to literacy which parallels her emotional, social and moral growth, all reflect a post-modern sensibility. And of course, the story that is being told to us came to Death through a hand-written book in fading pencil – even as we read the story is disappearing and will only live on to the extent that we allow it to in our hearts. • For discussion: The use of overly poetic language in a novel may at times undermine the forward momentum of the plot. Is this the case in The Book Thief? How does Zusak balance the poetic with the prosaic elements of style? While the post-modern compulsion to draw attention to itself is clearly present in The Book Thief, do you feel it becomes a distraction from the story? Why or why not?
Questions Answer the questions to the following questions. For questions 3-6, give an example from the text that either supports your answer and/or shows how the question and answer relate to the text. 1. What book is Max always reading beside the fire that he says saved his life? 2. Max, Hans and Liesel sit around the fire swapping stories and telling about their past—allowing to know more about their background. Describe how you and your friends and family tell family stories from the past and how it affects your relationship with them when you know where they’re coming from. 3. Examine the bond that Liesel and Max have because they both experience nightmares nightly. Why do you think sharing this experience with each other helped lighten their burden of the nightmares? 4. Give an example of a time in your life where sharing a similar burden with someone helped make it a bit easier for the both of you. 5. Predict the consequences for the Hubermanns of taking Max, a Jew, into their home? 6. For the Hubermanns, is it really worth putting all their lives in jeopardy to take in Max? Is the depth of Hans’s dept to Max’s father enough for him to be legitimately taking this risk?