The Power of Words
THE BOOK THIEF
By Markus Zusak
Knopf. 552 pp. $16.95
Death, it turns out, is not proud.
The narrator of The Book Thief is many things -- sardonic, wry, darkly humorous, compassionate -- but not especially proud. As author Marcus Zusak channels him, Death -- who doesn't carry a scythe but gets a kick out of the idea -- is as afraid of humans as humans are of him.
Knopf is blitz-marketing this 550-page book set in Nazi Germany as a young-adult novel, though it was published in the author's native Australia for grown-ups. (Zusak, 30, has written several books for kids, including the award-winning I Am the Messenger .) The book's length, subject matter and approach might give early teen readers pause, but those who can get beyond the rather confusing first pages will find an absorbing and searing narrative.
Death meets the book thief, a 9-year-old girl named Liesel Meminger, when he comes to take her little brother, and she becomes an enduring force in his life, despite his efforts to resist her. "I traveled the globe . . . handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity," Death writes. "I warned myself that I should keep a good distance from the burial of Liesel Meminger's brother. I did not heed my advice." As Death lingers at the burial, he watches the girl, who can't yet read, steal a gravedigger's instruction manual. Thus Liesel is touched first by Death, then by words, as if she knows she'll need their comfort during the hardships ahead.
And there are plenty to come. Liesel's father has already been carted off for being a communist and soon her mother disappears, too, leaving her in the care of foster parents: the accordion-playing, silver-eyed Hans Hubermann and his wife, Rosa, who has a face like "creased-up cardboard." Liesel's new family lives on the unfortunately named Himmel (Heaven) Street, in a small town on the outskirts of Munich populated by vivid characters: from the blond-haired boy who relates to Jesse Owens to the mayor's wife who hides from despair in her library. They are, for the most part, foul-spoken but good-hearted folks, some of whom have the strength to stand up to the Nazis in small but telling ways.
Stolen books form the spine of the story. Though Liesel's foster father realizes the subject matter isn't ideal, he uses "The Grave Digger's Handbook" to teach her to read. "If I die anytime soon, you make sure they bury me right," he tells her, and she solemnly agrees. Reading opens new worlds to her; soon she is looking for other material for distraction. She rescues a book from a pile being burned by the Nazis, then begins stealing more books from the mayor's wife. After a Jewish fist-fighter hides behind a copy of Mein Kampf as he makes his way to the relative safety of the Hubermanns' basement, he then literally whitewashes the pages to create his own book for Liesel, which sustains her through her darkest times. Other books come in handy as diversions during bombing raids or hedges against grief. And it is the book she is writing herself that, ultimately, will save Liesel's life.
Death recounts all this mostly dispassionately -- you can tell he almost hates to be involved. His language is spare but evocative, and he's fond of emphasizing points with bold type and centered pronouncements, just to make sure you get them (how almost endearing that is, that Death feels a need to emphasize anything). "A NICE THOUGHT," Death will suddenly announce, or "A KEY WORD." He's also full of deft descriptions: "Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face."
Death, like Liesel, has a way with words. And he recognizes them not only for the good they can do, but for the evil as well. What would Hitler have been, after all, without words? As this book reminds us, what would any of us be? ·
Elizabeth Chang, a copy editor for The Washington Post Magazine, last wrote for Book World about picture books.