My personal policy is that I don’t see movies until I’ve read the book they’re based on. This becomes tricky if a movie sneaks up on me, and I didn’t realize that it was being made; or if I don’t have time to commit to finding and reading the book; or if I wasn’t interested in a book until they cast an awesome actor that I like in the adaptation. In all of those cases, I’m general scrambling to catch up and read the book, and by the time I do, the flick is out of the theater, and I’m left in the cold. The result is that I end up reading a lot of books that have been turned into movies, but without ever actually getting around it seeing the movie. I think I’m in the same boat with my latest read, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. The trailer I saw for the movie looked really good, but I still probably wouldn’t have read the book and not seen the movie until my dad recommended I see the movie. My dad never makes recommendations. So this made me sit up and take notice.
So, a word on the plot. The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is living in
at the time when Hitler is coming to power. We meet Liesel on the train on her way to a suburb of Germany where her mother has made arrangements to live with a foster family; Liesel’s father was a communist and disappeared, her mother was ill and unable to care for her children, so fostering Liesel was her best option. On the train, Liesel’s brother dies, and their journey is delayed at a small town next to the train track so they can burry him. It is there that a grave digger drops a book which Liesel picks up and carries with her to her new home. Liesel’s foster father sees her interest in the book and offers to teach her how to read. In the three years or so of the story, we see Liesel adjust to her new life, make friends, learn to read and write, and come to terms with the inhumanity going on around her. Munich
The interesting twist to this book (and there are a lot about children growing up in Nazi Germany so I twist was needed) is that it is narrated by Death. As Death reminds the reader, this was a busy time for him, however, Liesel’s story captured his attention when his tasks brought him around her life several times in her youth. The other thing that Death reminds his reader of is that everyone dies. And he put that on front-street, and the reader would do well to remember it.
When the narrator of a story pretty much guarantees the death of a bunch of people in the first chapter, you would think it would be easy to stay detached from the characters. In this case, not at all. Liesel, her neighbors, and her foster parents are all so well written, so engaging and dynamic, and so likable, that I was turning pages hoping for the best and dreading the worst. But, as Death promised, when the end comes, it comes for everyone. Some lives are shorter than others, some are fulfilled and other aren’t, but the end of each made me cry. Because that’s the tragedy that is life; everyone meets their end, and every life is worth crying over because it had value to those around it.
All that having been said, the writing style to this book is a little all over the place. Because it’s being narrated by Death, it jumps back and forth, is heavy on the foreshadowing, and I found it going into excessive detail when a few well-chosen words would have done a better job at conveying the author’s intent. While the plot is interesting, and the characters engaging, the writing style distracts somewhat from those aspects of the book.
So, final verdict? I’ve heard people say this book has changed their life. I’m not going to say that. This is an interesting read, covering some well-trodden ground in an interesting way, true. But the delivery method was a little rough around the edges, and the lessons it aims to impart are the same lessons that all books writing about the Holocaust and the Third Reich try to deliver. At the end of the day, The Book Thief is a story about being kind to your neighbor and not harbouring hatred in your heard. Zusak does a wonderful job at getting that message across, but I’m still going to end up missing the flick in the theaters and the reading of the book didn’t change my life in an intrinsic way.