When I was a little girl, I learned the difference between good tears and bad ones. Bad tears belonged to scraped knees, while the happy kind came from laughing until my sides hurt and then laughing some more.
But sometimes, once in a blue moon, an author comes along who can blur the lines between pain and euphoria. Sometimes an author is talented enough to take these two opposing emotions, sort out their differences and knit them together. When this strange collision happens, it creates characters and a plot that stick with the reader long after the last page is turned.
It is due to the aforementioned reason that part of my heart will always belong on Himmel Street in Molching, Germany. This suburban street is where Markus Zusak plants the characters of his wildly successful novel, The Book Thief. The reader first encounters the street when its protagonist, Liesel Meminger, arrives there to live with foster parents. The year is 1939 and Leisel is just about to turn ten. I know what you must be thinking: if the book starts in 1939 then it must have something to do with World War II. And yes, you would be correct. The difference, however, is that Liesel is not Anne Frank. She does not need to hide in an attic, as she is a blonde Lutheran girl. Zusak reminds us, “Anything was better than being a Jew.” Conceivably, Liesel was safe.
This would be true if not for the Jewish man in her basement. Heck, it would be true aside from the fact that war is like a fire hungry for oxygen: it is belligerent and all-consuming.
This author makes the bold choice of using Death as his narrator. Yes, that is Death with a capital “D.” Through Zusak’s mastery, Death becomes a living, breathing tour guide, ready to direct the reader through Zusak’s story. It is Death who taunts the readers by saying, “If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I’ll show you something.” This third-person narrator is crucial to understanding Liesel, Rudy, and Max, the man in the basement who carries a copy of Mien Kampf. Death breaks the fourth wall and comes off the page to interject explanations and context to scenes that make the plot flow in a cohesive direction. Death reminds us, “I am not violent. I am not malicious. I am a result.” It is best to keep this in mind.
Through Death and Zusak, I saw Liesel grow up. I saw how the war affects a girl who is just trying to read and play soccer with the other kids on her street. It is Death who tells us of Liesel’s book-thievery and compels us to follow the story until the end, even when all we really want to do is throw the book against the wall in protest at the unfair hand dealt to our characters. Through Zusak’s words, I heard the sirens and felt the tremors of bombs shaking the ground. And most important of all, I was in the basement listening to Liesel read to the residents of Himmel Street as they wait for the bombs to fade.
I read this book for the first time when I was twelve. This may seem like an odd choice of literature for a prepubescent girl to read. However, in Zusak’s words, I found Liesel and Rudy: there was no better pair in the world. Liesel is resilient, brave and smart, while Rudy is the fastest runner, mischievous and thoroughly in love with Liesel. Pairing these two together while juxtaposing them to all the troubles that came with World War II (air raids, food shortages, the Hitler Youth), I was given a glimpse of what my world would have looked like had I been born sixty-five years earlier.
Every time I read this book, I have gone through a box of tissues and my face is all blotchy and red by the end. There is no other way to put it: this novel is extraordinary. From the prose to the characters to the story, everything is captivating. There is a reason this book was on the New York Times Bestseller list for over 230 weeks.
Through Zusak’s words, I learned that humanity is sometimes depraved, that broken hearts can mend through time and that, above all else, words have power.