One of the parts of my job that I love is being able to share my reactions to the many great books available for young adults. The Book Thief by Mark Zusak is my latest addition to books I cheerlead for my students. It’s not just the novelty of the grim reaper as the narrator of a story set in a German town withering under Nazi domination. It’s the feeling Zusak creates for all of his characters, even death.
One of the standards of our reading program is for students to demonstrate proficiency in analyzing a novel’s theme, character transformation and author’s choice of literary elements. By last term of the year, I tell students that once they’ve scored 48 out of 50 points on more than half of their reading responses this year, they no longer have to write an extended response and may choose their own way to respond to what they’ve read. I was curious to see students would respond to these loose parameters. Would they write a pithy paragraph just to satisfy the assignment requirements or would they continue to make earnest responses. The latter was the norm. Below is a response from a student after completing The Book Thief.
Hi Mr. Banaszewski. As I have passed the requirements that you have set, I have opted to write my reading response in a… different style than I usually do. I also will not be including a paragraph that summarizes the book, as I know that you have read this book (and thank you for recommending it to us). Certain grammar and spelling issues in this response are intentional, and were made so that my thoughts and the way I wanted certain things read would come across the way I wanted them to.
It’s almost two in the morning, and I still have a book clutched in my hands, still leafing through the well-thumbed pages that are commonly found in novels borrowed from a library.
I know I have school in the morning, and in about five hours, I will have to drag myself out of my bed and greet the morning sun as it rises above horizon and into the sky.
However, considering my state of mind in the mornings, the only thought that my sleep-starved brain will be able to form will be something along the lines of, “I hate you Zusak and your terriblywonderfullybrilliant book”.
But right now, it’s dark and the sun’s still on the other side of the world, and all I care about is right now, right here, and I continue to leaf my way through the book in my hands, the only thing on my mind being Liesel, the German girl with blonde hair and brown eyes still alone, writing in the dark basement until the bombs strike and rubble is everywhere.
While Liesel writes her story in the basement, and I sit on my bed, for a brief moment, I feel as though I can connect to her, right before the bombs rain down from the sky like oversized rain droplets. We both know the power of words. We have both felt them, and now, right now, right now while my eyes continue to flit across the page, I am the one captivated by reading, and Liesel, shackled by paper chains is the one captured by writing and the feel of a pen sliding silkily across her notebook paper.
Another page or two turn, and Death is rampant and everywhere. He is by the fire in the Hubermann’s house, by the road where the children of Himmel Street play soccer with a ball of rags, by Frau Holtzapfel’s house where Liesel read to the elderly woman with two sons that have already had their souls reaped by Death, long, silver crescent-moon shaped blade in hand, face hidden in the shadows of the hood pulled over his head.
Oh right – I forgot. Death reaping souls with that long, silver crescent-moon shaped blade – that’s a stereotype of what Death looks like; how he does his job. He doesn’t use scythes to collect the souls of the fallen, and neither does he wear a long, black, hooded cloak whose hem trails whispers upon the ground he walks. (Unless, of course, it’s cold outside, and Death needs something to warm him.) Death doesn’t enjoy the job he has, and neither is war his friend.
(And Death is haunted by humans)
It’s one reason why I was so entranced by The Book Thief – there was something about the way Death narrated the story that was so captivating. How he phrased his sentences, how he used colors to describe events. (“First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.” (3))
There’s something about how he speaks, how he tells the story that made it such an engaging read. His speech is elegant and refined, and you, the reader, appreciates his eye for detail. At the same time I don’t find this book interesting because it’s detailed, but rather how, how things, events, subjects, how they’re described. For me, it was a fresh perspective – something I hadn’t seen before. And that was how the first page drew me into the book.
Hook. Line. And sinker.
And ever since that day when I picked it up in the library, the book hasn’t left me.
“A DEFINITION NOT FOUND IN THE DICTIONARY
Not leaving: an act of trust and love,
often deciphered by children”
However, to be honest it hasn’t really been that long.
This book hasn’t exactly “left” me, because… it’s one of those books that change your life. And when I say this, I need to say two things:
1) Change your life in a positive way.
2) The “change”… it doesn’t need to be life-changing.
For me, the book was a change of perspective. A different way of looking at things.
It has a childish tone, but yet it talks about Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, bombings, death, the power of words… and at the same time, throughout the novel, you have Hans with his accordion and his soft, silver metal eyes, and soccer out on Himmel Street with the kids living in the neighborhood. You have bookapplehampotato thievery, and you have Rudy who is ever so insistent for a kiss from his best friend.
And then you meet Max, and somehow… somehow he is a mixture of both the serious and the child-like aspects of the books. Max, the Jew that has come to hide in their basement. Max, the Jew that is causing HansRosaLiesel to live a lie, everyday, everywhere. And yet, Max, Max with his hair like feathers becomes friends with Liesel, and she gives him weather reports of tightrope clouds in the blue sky and leave him little presents (toysoldiersandsoccerballsmadeofragsandstones) and reads to him when he’s sick, after building him a snowman in the basement with buckets of snow brought from the outside.
That’s how friends are made, you know.
You meet someone.
And suddenly you just begin to care so much.
The books that Max write for Liesel are about his life and Germany – how he sees things. The drawings that Max doodles with his paintbrush – those are the ones that I look at and take a step back at. They are the ones that provide a new, fresh, perspective, a new way of looking at things. And I like that. I enjoy it. Too often, we are caught in righthere, right now, only us, no one else. And it’s too easy to shut the rest of the world out and live in a little protected bubble.
I’ve spoken about Max already, and I feel as though I should address some of the other characters in The Book Thief.
But to be honest, I love Max, and his “I will punch Death in the face when he comes for me” thoughts and his “stupid gallantry” as Death puts it. But there are time when I am reading, and Max makes an implication that simply put is, “It’s okay if I die – I don’t matter anyway,” simply because he is a Jew.
And I can’t imagine what that’s like.
To want to die even if it isn’t your fault.
It reminds me of Frau Holtzapfel’s son, the one who came back after his brother died in war. The one who killed himself because he wanted to live.
What I love about the characters in The Book Thief is that they’re all so richly developed, they all have their own characteristics and their own personality, and while often I read books and feel as though the main characters, the heroes and heroines are too close to perfect and that their flaws could be argued as distinguishing traits that are actually good, in The Book Thief, Liesel steals and is stubborn, she thinks about herself before her family first and fights and plots. She isn’t perfect.
But it just makes me love her more.
Oh, and some quick pieces of evidence for my examples:
1) Stealing (books, potatoes, hams, apples, etc.)
2) Stubborn (refusing to take a bath)
3) Thinks about herself before her family (using the coin to buy candy with Rudy, eating all the chestnuts and other food herself/with Rudy)
4) Fights (when the two boys mock her for being illiterate – I love how she stands up for herself, even if she uses methods that are not exactly… socially acceptable)
5) Plots (the ham stealing incident)
Anyway, the depth of the characters is another reason why this book has not left me (and never will). The book just makes you fall in love with the cast – Hans and his accordion music by the fireplace with his silver, melting eyes; a man that knows when to leave and when to stay. Hans, whose soul sat up when Death came for him.
And there was Rosa, “a good woman to have in a crisis”, and the thing is, is that I hated Rosa Hubermann in the beginning, because she swore and beat Liesel and when I was reading about the frightened child sitting in the car with a woman swearing at her while brandishing a wooden spoon, I immediately disliked her. But then later, you realize Rosa showed her love for Liesel differently, and I found it amusing that she would lecture to Liesel about being hardworking and yet make her foster child carry the laundry and clean the spit from Frau Holtzapfel off their door.
And then there was Rudy, persistent Rudy who just wanted a kiss from his best friend. Rudy, who had hair the color of lemons and gave the dying pilot a teddy bear, because it was the right thing to do. Rudy, who wanted to prove himself that he wasn’t worthless and ran four races and won three. Rudy, who eventually did get his best friend to confess that she loved him, but only too late.
And then there was Max, with his hair like feathers (and twigs, when it wasn’t washed), the Jew who would doodle his thoughts on the Nazis over painted pages of Mein Kampf (I found that rather amusing) and tell Liesel that “it was the best book ever” because it had saved his life. Max, who fought others when he was young and never stopped.
The characters… they were the ones that gave me such an emotional response to the book. After going through over 500 pages with the cast and have to watch them all lie motionless on the ground with their eyes blank and dead… it made tears well in my eyes drip down my nose – and it’s all because Zusak does an absolutely amazing job of taking the reader through these characters and let them know these people trapped in the pages. He makes them care about LieselRudyHansMaxRosa and when they’re all gone, ripped away by the bombs dropped on Himmel Street – the response is immediate and it’s unbearably emotional.
Right now I’m really struggling to convey what I want to say through these words, and their power has failed to pass on my meaning.
But anyone who has read The Book Thief will know.
It’s a book full of wonderful characters and is written in a fresh style. And it has a promise.
At one point in this book, Death states, “This book will restore your faith in life.” Or perhaps it was humanity. I can’t remember – the details seem fuzzy and blurred like a dream in my memory. In any other book, it would’ve sounded arrogant. Conceited. The dictionary on my MacBook has given me another synonym that says, “too big for one’s britches”. (Okay, I kind of laughed a little in my mind when I read it.) But in The Book Thief, with silver, melting eyes and hair like feathers and Nazis everywhere, Death makes it sound like a promise.
(And that isn’t something a lot of books are able to do.)
When I finished the book, I felt as though the book had indeed fulfilled that promise. It had restored my faith in a way that I can’t exactly explain. Liesel loses everything during that bombing, and even when it’s over, she still has words. She still has something. And it’s encouraging in a way – you know you’re not alone.
And it’s slightly past two in the morning, when I’m thinking this, and I still have a book clutched in my hands; the domino-riddled cover facing me, the plastic cover held by my tear-stained fingertips.
The sun will peek at Shanghai with a few rays in a couple of hours, and I know that it is time for me to sleep.
And when I shut off the light, all I can think about is The Book Thief.
(We are all captivated by words)