Australian author Markus Zusak says two stories from his mother's childhood in Germany inspired his extraordinary new novel, "The Book Thief": the burning sky when Munich was bombed, and a boy being whipped on the street for giving a starving Jewish man a piece of bread.
On one level, "The Book Thief" is the coming-of-age story of Liesel Meminger, an illiterate girl who is sent to live with kindly house painter Hans Hubermann and his cantankerous wife on the outskirts of Munich on the eve of World War II. It's also a love story, of her friendship with her next-door neighbor Rudy Steiner, a lad legendary in his small town for having coated himself with charcoal before running headlong around the track to celebrate the triumph of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics.
On another level, "The Book Thief" is a poignant testament to the power of words to liberate and enslave, to wound, and finally, to heal. Although it's being marketed in this country as a Young Adult title (Zusak's "I am the Messenger" won 2006 Michael Printz Honors for best Young Adult novel), this powerful novel of the adolescent experience in Germany during World War II deserves to reach a wider audience.
Death is the narrator -- a seemingly awkward device that works extraordinarily well here thanks to Zusak's flair for the language and his imagination. It helps of course, that this is World War II and Death has a leading role.
"First the colors.
Then the humans.
That's usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
HERE IS A SMALL FACT
You are going to die."
In the book's opening pages, Death's narration is a bit hard to follow. Death sees the Book Thief (that would be Liesel) three times, the first when her younger brother dies on the train to Munich. That's when she steals her first book, "The Gravedigger's Handbook."
Death's mention of two more encounters with Liesel foreshadows deaths she will witness much later in the book. Death knows all: The reader gets plenty of warning ahead of time who is to die and when, which adds an undercurrent of almost unbearable sadness.
Death's general observations about the war are woven into the very personal story of Liesel, Rudy and Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man who takes shelter in the Hubermanns' basement.
Zusak paints a vivid portrait of the war in microcosm, as experienced in one working-class German neighborhood. Nothing about it is abstract; both cruelty and courage are personal. A nasty Nazi storekeeper cheats two kids over a piece of candy; bullies empowered by the Hitler Youth pound on kids they know from school.
Again and again, "The Book Thief" shows the power of words to wound and of stories to heal. Liesel's foster father teaches her to read when she awakes at night from nightmares. Her collection of books is an odd one: when the town celebrates Hitler's birthday with a book burning, she steals a smoldering copy of a banned book, "The Shoulder Shrug." Vandenburg paints over the pages of "Mein Kampf" to tell his own story complete with drawings. Liesel reads to her neighbors during bombing raids, and much later, she writes the story that will save her life.
Zusak is a poet, and his writing is full of stunning images. Kindly Hans Hubermann has eyes "of kindness and silver." A gun "clips a hole in the night." Zusak writes of the "disassembled men" of Stalingrad, of "cherries of blood" blooming in a bandage. A starving man had "eaten only the foul taste of his own hungry breath."
Throughout, Death is trying to figure out if humans are worth it. In "The Book Thief," Death does come to a final conclusion. And the burning sky and the gift of bread to a Jew, remembered from a Munich childhood, are etched indelibly now, a memorial in words.
"The world is a factory. The sun stirs it, the humans rule it. And I remain. I carry them away."
Jean Westmoore is editor of NeXt and the News' Children's Book Reviewer.
>The Book Thief
By Markus Zusak
Knopf, 552 pages, $16.95