The Booky Man has read a great many novels in the first 10 years of this millennium. Fat novels, thin novels. Novels of substance and novels I didn’t care to finish. If the weight of every novel I’ve consumed went to my head the way meals have gone to my middle, I’d now wear hat size 66.56083°.
Since 2005, when I joined Paste as Book Editor, I’ve read at least two novels a month, often more. Before that, I kept a small skyscraper of novels on the bedside table, cracking them open nearly every night, doing my best to stay ahead of those merciless devils in the publishing world.
I wish I’d read even more.
With all these worthy books to consider, it’s a proud moment when I find one that speaks to me so directly that I want to stand on a table in the nearest library and wave it in the air.
This week, I’m table-dancing. I’m waving a book that I would pay you to read, if I had Oprah money.
The Book Thief, by New Zealand writer Markus Zusak, grows out of the fictional soil somewhere between To Kill A Mockingbird and Diary of a Young Girl.
I do not hesitate to say The Book Thief holds greatness in it.
Since coming out in paperback in the United States in 2006, this title slowly has gained a fervent, well-deserved following. This week, it’s been on the New York Times Children’s Best Seller list for 125 weeks and counting. (As this column posts, it’s number one on that list.) Though marketed as a young-adult book—and my own 15-year-old daughter Bonnie recommended it to me—it’s a match for the emotions and intelligence of any adult.
The narrator of The Book Thief is Death himself, and he’s a bone-weary rascal, tired to … well, tired to death … of gentling souls out of their human bodies and ferrying them away to wherever it is they go. World War II and the Holocaust have exhausted Death, all those deadlines, all that creative killing. “I traveled the globe” … Death says, “handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity.”
We’re in Germany during World War II, Death tells us, in a little suburb of Munich, a house on Himmel Street—Heaven Street.
Inside the house lives a young girl named Liesel Meminger, who suffers from nightmares. She’s an abandoned child, raised by kindly foster parents. Her real mother has left her in the care of Hans Hubermann, a silver-eyed, good-hearted accordion player, and his wife Rosa, a foul-mouthed, crusty housewife with a face “like crumpled cardboard.”
Death tells us Liesel suffers nightmares of her little brother, who died on the train trip to their new foster home. Death also tells how he arrived that day to collect the boy’s little six-year-old soul, but then stopped to watch the snowy burial … and saw nine-year-old Liesel do something remarkable. She stole a book that fell out of the gravedigger’s coat. Death, perplexed, knows Liesel cannot read. Why has she stolen a book called The Grave Digger’s Handbook: A Twelve-Step Guide to Grave-Digging Success?
Here starts the book-stealing career of Liesel Meminger … and the path to her literal salvation, by book’s end. The Book Thief, you see, is a trumpet blast for the power of books and words – the power of words to do good, to do bad; to raze low and raise high; to create a Hitler, to allow a Hans Hubermann to exist.
Words, in short, rule the world.
To soothe Liesel’s nightmares, her foster father takes up the The Grave Digger’s Handbook and reads it to her, calming her soul. The girl herself gradually learns to read from this book, mastering the words and grasping their power. Liesel’s next theft is a scorched volume heisted from the ashes of a Nazi book-burning. Her third comes from the private library of the emotionally damaged wife of the mayor in their sleepy little town.
Death watches Liesel grow up in this little German version of Mayberry—a Mayberry where Nazi families watch from the windows as children sprint and cycle and snitch apples and bully and swim, as seasons come and seasons go.
Life is tricky for Liesel and her foster family. Hans Hubermann, Death tells us, is no Nazi sympathizer, here in a world drunk with Third Reich delusions. The accordion player first draws community scorn after painting over swastikas that vandals slash onto the fronts of Jewish stores and houses. Why this simple act of kindness? It turns out, according to the all-knowing Death, that Hans Hubermann owes his very life to a Jew, a good man who saved his life in the first World War, and who gave him his accordion.
The plot thickens when a Jewish refugee arrives, terrified and sick, carrying a copy of Mein Kampf. The book has helped Max, the Jew, travel through Germany to the Hubermann’s house without being caught, questioned or sent to a concentration camp. As good fiction would have it, Max is the son of the Jew who saved Hans Hubermann’s life in the first war. The Hubermann family then hides Max in the basement of their house for many months, at great risk to themselves and Liesel. It’s what simple, decent people do.
Death watches all this with some fascination. Coolly neutral, Death spins the story of Liesel’s troubled childhood and coming-of-age, including adventures with her friend Rudy. He’s a young athlete who once stains himself black in honor of the American athlete Jesse Owens, the African-American from Alabama who won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games … but not Hitler’s handshake. Rudy loves only one thing more than Jesse Owens, and that’s Liesel. He is so enamored that he asks Liesel for a kiss whenever there’s a pause in their games. This sweetness breaks even the heart of Death himself before the book ends.
So, what actually happens in The Book Thief?
A little girl grows up.
A little girl grows up in Nazi Germany with a Jewish boxer hiding and suffering in the basement, a character who returns Liesel’s kindnesses by writing his own book for her using whitewashed pages of Mein Kampf.
A little girl grows up, and watches a terrible war come closer and closer, chapter by chapter.
A little girl grows into a young woman who one fateful night all alone is writing the story of her life, observed only by Death himself, when American and British bombers roar from the night over Munich and open their bay doors over Himmel Street.
That’s what The Book Thief is about.
And it’s about this, too. My own mother lived in south Alabama when she was the age of Liesel, during World War II. She told me some years back of going to the movies on Saturday night in Dothan, a town with exactly one movie theater in 1944. A few miles away, at Napier Field, a small prisoner-of-war camp held young German soldiers, blonde and blue-eyed, who had fired their last bullets of the war.
Some Saturday nights, GIs would round the German boys up and herd them onto a bus and chug through the night down to—not the gas chambers—but to The Martin Theater, the picture show on Main Street in Dothan.
It was wartime. Old farmers and school kids stood in line to buy tickets to Mrs. Miniver or Going My Way or a Johnny Mack Brown western. They uneasily watched the Germans file down from the bus, no chains or manacles, just hands deep in their pockets. The POWs would be seated in the balcony, together in one place, up in the dark overhead, buzzing like the Luftwaffe in their strange language. The Alabama farm town people in the audience below, my young mother too, ate popcorn and wondered anew if Uncle Johnny would come home from France, or if Mr. Oppert, missing in action, would ever be found.
I can’t help but think of the little town that surrounded my mother in those times. Men were scarce – draft-age males fought Hitler and Tojo across both oceans. School kids memorized the silhouettes of German planes. People put candles in their windows, and others lit candles in church and prayed to God for their loved ones, for the war to end, for an end to suffering.
But these good country people, like all of us, carried their own flaws, their own curses. They suppressed blacks. They likely held their own prejudices against the Jews too, the ones who ran the big department store, and the Jewish doctor who put stethoscopes against backs of children, listening for whooping cough. They were flawed folks—all of us are—but these families and this community, warts and all, sheltered my mother so that she could safely reach adulthood and give birth to me, so that I live too.
My mother is a very old woman now, and one day Death will come for her. That will be the end, the cover of her book closed. Death will take away the good she did, and the bad. All we’ll have of her then will be a headstone and her stories, stories like the ones told so powerfully in The Book Thief, stories that live only in words and remembrances when the faithful body is done and gone.
A book like this one by Markus Zusak helps remind us of the good and bad embedded in each person, the choices we get right and wrong, how sadly we can be swept away by the winds of the times, or how nobly we can live just by showing the slightest simple courage in the right time and place.
Times are hard and money is scarce. But The Book Thief is a novel you should just go out and steal if you have to. Get it and read it, and feel your heart break so sweetly.
Charles McNair is Paste‘s books editor. His novel Land o’ Goshen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.