The Book Thief
By Markus Zusak
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 552 pages, $16.95.
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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.