I’m a little late to the party on this one, as it came out in 2005 and was fairly popular when I first heard about it in 2009. By that time I was a senior in high school and not really interested in YA fiction as much, so I ignored the hype, but… a book group I joined here in Dublin chose to read it this month, so I read it and I’ll share my thoughts with you here.
I wasn’t the most excited to get started on the book. Yes, the Holocaust was a momentous event and there are a lot of important stories to share, but after Night and Maus and Diary of Anne Frank and Victor Frankl’s wonderful Man’s Search for Meaning and 400 more on Goodreads, it seems a little played out to me. I’m not saying we should forget and risk repeating history or suggest that anybody CAN’T write about this topic, but there has been a lot written and if a writer’s not careful, it can seem as though he is trying to milk a sensitive topic to sell books.
Markus Zusak is not especially careful. In The Book Thief does have a different take on the Holocaust than most stories because it is told from the perspective of a German girl in a poor neighborhood. The tone of the story is buoyant despite the setting. The main character, Liesel, has two loving foster parents, a best friend she gets into trouble with, and a hobby – stealing books. It’s not clear why she loves books so much, as she started stealing them before she learned to read. The book never goes into whether one of her original parents loved books, the reader is just supposed to accept her love of books as proof of her intelligence and virtue.
Liesel is a pretty relatable character. She’s plucky and smart and haunted by the memory of her brother’s death. Hans and Rosa, her parents, are both rounded characters. Hans is always kind towards Liesel. He refuses to join the Nazi party and helps the Jews. Rosa is something else. She’s loud and fond of obscenities, but she loves Liesel and helps protect the young Jewish man that comes to Hans for help.
Overall, the characters are well-crafted and the dialogue is funny and flows well. But there’s something that seems off about this particular story taking place in this particular setting. The style, simple YA prose, and the lack of moral ambiguity (most of the characters are either clearly “bad” or clearly “good” despite minor issues like stealing and fighting which are means of survival) gives the novel a very storybook-y feeling. Maybe because the story is narrated by Death, using Liesel’s diary that she had written at age fourteen?
There isn’t a lot of specific detail that one wouldn’t automatically assume was present in Germany. There’s a shop-lady with a portrait of Hitler behind her counter, the economy’s in the toilet so some people have to steal food or go hungry, the kids go to Hitler Youth. These things do affect the story to a large extent, but the lack of specific detail makes it hard to visualize. There are very few small details that say “this is Germany”. It rarely describes what the houses look like, what kind of unique objects they have inside them, or ways Germans of that period live their lives differently than people in other places and periods.
What I want to say is, it feels very far away. Which makes sense – it was written by an Australian man about sixty years after the Holocaust. The writer is very far away from his subject, both in time and space. Death’s role in the book is also softened — he gently picks up the souls from their bodies and takes them away, careful to keep his eyes on the sky so that he doesn’t see their suffering. The ubiquitous suffering feels muffled, like a blanket of snow fell over it. That’s basically what this book feels like — blood and screams covered by snow.
I think this is probably a good Holocaust book for younger readers because they’ll like the protagonist and it won’t disturb them too much, but I’d advise older readers to skip it, because although it has some neat twists in that it’s narrated by Death and the protagonist is a German girl instead of a Jew, it’s really nothing new and it probably won’t make you think unless you haven’t really thought much about the Holocaust at all.
If you’ve read it, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Did you feel it was too far away, or did you like it as it is?