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Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Book Thief: The Power of Words

There is no better way to sum up this profound and moving story than to describe its most profound and moving metaphor: During World War II, a Jewish refugee named Max, who is hiding in a German family's basement, tears out pages of Mein Kampf and whitewashes them. He uses these newly clean pages to write a new story about the bond of shared experience between himself and the family's adopted teenage girl, Liesel.

He gives his story to Liesel as a gift, thereby deepening their bond and cementing the central message of the novel: Words are powerful. They can be both damning and brilliant. And they have equal gravity to be either massively destructive (like Nazi ideology), or redemptive, enlightening and life-giving (like Max's homemade book).

Liesel, who is the book thief of the title, had already had an inkling of this magnetic draw of words — even before she knew how to read. Her first book theft occurred the day she buried her younger brother on the way to their foster home; she stole a guide to grave digging that fell out of one of the gravedigger's pockets. She simply wanted a way to remember not just her dead brother, but how she was feeling at that moment of his burial. After she arrives at her foster home near Munich, her adopted father Hans teaches her to read and she begins to understand more deeply how life-altering words and stories can be.

I'd heard so much about this book before finally picking it up, and I'd always been worried about how much I would really connect with a supposedly "young adult" coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl in Nazi Germany. Let's make one thing clear: Whoever decided to label or market this is as a "young adult novel" made a massive miscalculation. If the YA label is your hesitancy as well, please be assured you can discard it out of hand. I'm not sure where the line between young and adult fiction is, but this belongs on the shelf next to the best of any kind of literature.

My second hesitation was the Death-as-narrator gimmick — I was worried how well it'd work. But, again: Fears were unfounded. Death's voice in this novel is unlike anything I've ever read. It's poetic and imaginative, but straightforward and serious at the same time. In an interview published at the end of the novel, Zusak reveals that he'd started the novel with Death as the heartless soul-reaper you'd expect. But, he says, the story wasn't working. So he created an omniscient Death who simultaneously sympathizes with and is terrified of humanity.

Finally, approximately 99 percent of people who talk about this book do it in such glowing terms that I had that typical too-high expectations hesitancy. I may not have loved this book as much as many, but I did thoroughly enjoy it. It moved me and it made me think, two hallmarks of a great book. 

Have you read The Book Thief? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts, but also there's one question in the "for discussion" section at the end on which I'd be interested to hear your take — what is ironic about Liesel's obsession for stealing books?

If you haven't read the book, it is highly, highly recommended.

25 comments:

  1. I think the "young adult" label comes simply from the fact that the novel's protagonist is a young adult. That's the only reason I, at least, can figure out why it was labeled as such.

    I read this book last month, also worrying that it wouldn't live up the the expectations and the hype. While it was well-written and I enjoyed it, it didn't really captivate me until the final 75 pages or so. I'm not sure why, but I just wasn't riveted until then.

    It's still a fabulous book, I still recommend it and I still gave it a 10/10, but I just didn't LOVE it like everyone else seems to have.

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  2. I read somewhere that the author did not want it to be labeled as YA but it was the publishers decision. Needless to say, I find it hard to sell the book to young teenagers. I don't think they'd really be able to wrap their heads around the entire thing but I do tell their parents that they must read it because it's a book adults can enjoy also.

    This is my opinion of the book from my site, rather then copying it all down here. http://soonrememberedtales.blogspot.com/2009/12/december-book-of-month-book-thief.html

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  3. I rarely re-read, but The Book Thief is up for a re-read this year. I loved it--especially Death--and the re-reading of it is the highest compliment I can pay.

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  4. I loved this book. It was so thought provoking.

    And I think that it is ironic that Liesel is the book thief because actually it is Death who is the book thief, he steals Liesel's book in the end. He is the actual book thief.

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  5. LOVED this book. I could NOT believe it was YA. I don't think it is. I think it will be too over a YA's head.

    This book was so thought provoking for me. It really did something to me. I loved it.

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  6. Thanks for the recommendation, I'll look for it in the Library here.

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  7. @Michelle - I totally agree about not being completely in love with it like many are - it's not something I can really put a finger on, it's just that I wasn't blown away. Maybe that's because of that too-high expectations thing again...

    @EricaH - Yeah, I also read somewhere (can't find it now) that Zusak was less than pleased with the YA label. Silly publisher! Thanks for sharing your review, also!

    @Andi - That IS a high compliment! I have no doubt I'll be re-reading a few years from now, too.

    @Zee - Good point about Death as the actual book thief - hadn't thought of it that way.

    @Mary - Thought-provoking, indeed. I'd have to put the book down at different spots and just take a few minutes to absorb what I'd just read. Not very YA-ey!

    @Myne - Good luck!

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  8. This seems to be popping up EVERYWHERE these days! Another one for my to-be-read pile, it seems, which is already teetering at a dangerously impossible height. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  9. i read this book a few years ago when it was the offical book of the perth arts festival and i have to say i'm one of the people who LOVE-yell-it-from-the-rooftops-LOVE this book. i was so suprised when i found out it has a YA label. i read alot of YA and i tell you this one doesn't fit the genre at all! anyhoo, this isn't the first case of publishers doing crazy things categorising. i absolutely loved the definitions, i thought they were so clever and made me warm to death as a character in a way i might not have otherwise. also, it is the only book i've ever read about nazi germany from the point of view of the everyday german people and the devastation hitler brought to their world. i'm sure there's others out there, i've just not come across them. hmm, this is making me want to re-read this again....

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  10. I really loved this book. I wondered who she married at the end... I have a hypothesis, but I don't know if it's correct.

    I can't really say anything else coherent. This was just a devastatingly fantastic read.

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  11. Okay, okay, I will put it on my TBR pile. I held off because many of my friends raved about it and I was afraid I would not. As always you wrote an amazing review. Between you and everyone's answer I will have to admit this may be a book not to be missed.

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  12. I can't praise it enough. Something about it all is so human and fragile but tough. And I thought Death was especially kind (!!!!). Did anyone get the impression that the girl and Max got together in the end? One of my friends thought it alluded to that but I didn't get that vibe.

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  13. @Kerry - Yeah, it's strange - the book came out like 4 years ago, but it seems to still be gaining momentum!

    @mummazappa - Yeah, the "definitions" and other asides were one of my favorite parts of Death's voice, too. It allowed him to tell Liesel's story, but insert his own "personality" as well. Great storytelling technique!

    @Aarti - Yep, we agree. :)

    @SariJ - Had the same hesitation, so totally understand. Definitely worth a read, though!

    @Amy - I love that description, human and fragile, but tough. That's Liesel to a "T"!

    @SmallWorld - Sure is!

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  14. I think what impressed me most about this book was the way the author was able to make me care about characters even when, because of Death and what he knows, I already knew bad things were going to happen to them. I remember trying to keep myself a little distanced, but by the end I was a big mess. To me, that takes a lot of skill.

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  15. Great review! I've been contemplating for some time whether to read this one or not. Your beautiful review has me convinced!

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  16. Well you know I loved this book as you commented on my review of it. I am glad you read and enjoyed it. For me it wasn't so much of the story but of writing and the voice it was told in. I couldn't get enough of it.

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  17. Excellent review! I just loved this book! I, too, was a bit surprised at the YA label - I think it would be better classified as historical fiction. It's a book that will definitely stay with me!

    Thanks for visiting and commenting on my blog! :)

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  18. While I was reading I couldn't imagine how it was marketed as YA. I think young adults could learn a lot from this book, but I don't think it's intended for them.

    Here's my review.

    By the way, I found your blog through Book Blogger Hop. I think you're hilarious, and I'm adding you to my RSS feed!

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  19. I highly agree with your review along with your comments on this book. It is a touching story that was set in a time where happiness could not be easily found. Liesel, though in the early beginning went through some very disturbing things that made the reader have a massive amount of sympathy for her, she gave the Meinenger Family happiness and joy in a very depressing time.
    Not only in The Book Thief did Liesel provide a source of happiness for her new family, she grew stronger and more courageous as a person. In the beginning of this book, she is a very brittle and scared girl whom does not associate with anyone but her birth mother. As the novel progresses she becomes more open to not only her adoptive family, but to her commuinity as well. By the middle of The Book Thief, Liesel has very close friends and knows that she is a very strong-willed young woman. This only grows more true throughout the rest of the book.

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  20. I am 14, and I read The Book Thief last year. I am currently re-reading it, something that I rarely do. It is such an amazing book! It's so profound and heartbreaking, two characteristics that I love in a book. I highly recommended it to my mom, who then got her book club to read it. I think that it's a great book for teenagers and adults alike.

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  21. i love this book, had to read it for school so i thought it wouldn't be that good but it was great! as the story progressed felt a connection grow between myself and the characters. Also how Zusak created Death to be sypathetic was interesting, so well written 10/10

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  22. The Book Thief is definitely an astonishing book with one of the best narrator. The book is not made up of big, fancy words that lacks meaning, but instead, the creative and careful wording, as well as the perspective in Death's narrating has caught my eye.

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