The Angel of Death Narrates a New Tale for Young Readers

Books

By Mindy Aloff

Published April 21, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

Knopf Books for Young Readers, 552 pages, $16.95.

* * *

Markus Zusak’s intensely provocative, deeply imagined and magnificently produced new novel, “The Book Thief,” concerns a group of German children who are members of the Hitler Youth during the early 1940s. We learn of their families, their tribulations, their secret generosities and, in the case of the protagonist, a lifesaving passion for books. In the early part of the story, Liesl Meminger’s real family is dead, and her adopted family comes to harbor a Jew in its basement. By the penultimate chapter of the novel, everyone but Liesl and Max, the Jew, is dead. By the final chapter, everyone is dead but the nameless Angel of Death, an irritably portentous yet not entirely heartless figure who, when not busy rescuing the soft souls of the dying (even that of Adolf Hitler), serves as the book’s narrator.

The novel is being published by Knopf’s children’s division, which may not make some parents very happy, although this parent finds it a terrific choice for literate children of any age. The story, featuring many easily readable one- or two-sentence paragraphs, is so adroitly told (each chapter spilling the beans a little about the next, prompting the reader to chase after the plot) and with such a variety of means (the confection within the text of several handmade books, attributed to various characters and actually created by Trudy White; the use of typefaces that suggest old typewriters, even for the page numbers), that an adolescent who likes to read would be quite tempted to identify with the increasingly rebellious Liesl and her independently minded friend, Rudy, through their various — and, ultimately, bleak — adventures on the poverty-stricken Himmel Street of Zusak’s febrile imagining. That is, readers are asked to identify principally with two members of the Hitler Youth, and to reflect on gray areas of guilt and victimhood during the Holocaust. This is all to the good, as it encourages anyone who thinks about the origins of war to start asking questions of himself or herself (and perhaps, as the Angel recommends, to find Death by looking in a mirror).

Is “The Book Thief” really a novel for adults masquerading in the minuscule paragraphs and short, declarative sentences of a children’s chapter book? In one sense, no: The central characters are teenagers, all without sexual experience. Few adults these days choose to read fiction about innocents of this kind. Furthermore, the characters with whom one spends the most time do, indeed, turn out to be good at heart, while the villains are unmistakably evil.

On the other hand, the novel’s major proposition — that literature, embodied in book form, can save one’s life in ways both literal and metaphorical, even spiritual — is not a child’s theme in our time. It belongs, really, to generations of readers born before the computer overtook our society — and, in particular, to Jewish readers whose reverence, even mystical belief, in the life of letters on a page underwrites the most profound level of Liesl’s emblematic tale. The valorization of books here bespeaks a voice that is not in any way that of the typical English-speaking adolescent, circa 2006. Zusak, who lives in Sydney, Australia, thanks his parents, Lisa and Helmut, for the “stories we find hard to believe” from their own childhoods in Nazi Germany and Austria: It is their generation, and mine, the one following, for which the idea that a burning book ineluctably evokes a burning human being remains as vital as breathing. Clearly, given the exquisite way that Knopf has designed “The Book Thief,” Zusak has struck a chord, as well, in at least one business devoted to book publishing. For that reason, it is quite peculiar that the book designer’s name is nowhere to be found on a copy of the actual book — an oversight that should be rectified on a future printing.

Mindy Aloff’s new book, “Dance Anecdotes,” has just been published by Oxford University Press.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.