I have finally finished Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. This novel took me long enough to read that I’m actually not entirely sure when I started it. I think it was in November or December, though. The length of time it took me to finish this novel is not an indication of its quality; rather, it’s an indication of work reading versus pleasure reading. Surprise, surprise — I tend to pick pleasure reading over work. I’m sure you’re all shocked. The Book Thief came on to my radar during the WWII and Holocaust unit at my school. We gave the students free reign in picking a book in the genre of WWII/Holocaust literature, both fiction and nonfiction. It was moderate chaos. As any teacher or parent knows, though, when even a little chaos can be avoided, it’s by all means best to do so.
I began reading through the various histories and novels, trying to see if there was one that would be accessible to an entire eighth-grade class, one that contains variable levels of reading and comprehension skills as well as highly variable levels of motivation. As these things go, it was not an urgent project, so it was promptly put on the back burner. I would periodically check in to the novel, then set it down on my coffee table for days on end. Given my leisurely pace, it’s no wonder that it took me as long as it did to finish the 550-page novel.
Now that I’m finished, I can’t actually decide whether I’d assign it as mandatory class reading. Zusak’s novel is narrated by Death, an undeniably interesting point of view during the 1930s and ’40s. The protagonist, a young girl named Liesel, catches Death’s attention when he comes to collect her younger brother and notices the girl taking a book — specifically, The Grave Digger’s Handbook — out of a snowbank in the cemetery. Death then follows Liesel’s story as her mother leaves her with a foster family in Molching, Germany. Liesel’s foster parents are Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a man as gentle and kind as the woman is authoritarian. However, regardless of appearances, both Hans and Rosa love their foster daughter and are good-hearted people.
The novel is almost entirely focused on Liesel’s world, which makes for an interesting take on Hitler’s rise to power, the imprisonment of the Jews, Gypsies, and others, and the war itself. Zusak presents the unfolding events through both Liesel’s childish eyes and Death’s world-weary ones, making for an interesting interplay between being boggled by what’s happening versus simply tired and resigned to it all. Much of the first part of the novel seems unrelated to the war, though many early events are revealed to have serious consequences later on. Of course, even the first part of the novel is a strong indicator of the ending, as Death describes scenes and gives the readers facts that will not come to pass for years within the novel’s chronology. Every now and then, these vignettes are comforting. More often than not, though, they do little more than crush your hopes for characters and brace you for the tragedy to come.
Liesel’s family is simply another German family trying to get through the general hardship of war until a young man arrives at their door to ask Hans if he still plays the accordion. The question is a loaded one. The young man is a Jew by the name of Max Vandenburg, and he is in Molching due to a promise that Hans made to Max’s mother — the wife of a friend of his that was killed in the First World War — many years earlier. The Hubermanns are well aware of the extreme danger, but they arrange a hiding place in their basement for Max. Each member of the family becomes attached to the persecuted man in their own way, and they do all they can to protect him from the increasing power and scrutiny of the Nazi party. It is via Max that Liesel begins to understand the true extent and implications of Hitler’s so-called Master Race and Final Solution. She an Max read to one another, and he writes stories for her as presents. His stories and drawings are heartbreaking, and one of the most emotionally-charged parts of the novel, in my opinion.
As I mentioned, the story is much more about Liesel than about WWII or the Holocaust, and therein lies my dilemma in whether or not to assign it as part of the unit. On the one hand, young readers will absolutely be able to identify with Liesel, and her day to day life. They will understand her way of storytelling, which I think makes the horror of the war and Holocaust much more accessible to middle-schoolers. On the other hand, the tight focus sometimes lacks in broad historical scope, which shields them from some of the true atrocity of the time period. Death as the narrator gentles the impact of the death toll, as it makes the reader feel as though the dying had loving arms around them as they departed Earth. However, this on occasion bothered me, as it seemed almost dismissive of the massive pain and suffering that occurred at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. I don’t want to beat children over the head with it, but I firmly believe that it is important for each new generation to know the truth about the Holocaust, so that the refrain of “Never Again” does not die out over time. Further, there is essentially no mention of the war outside of Germany, though I can’t fault that too heavily, as the tale is about a German girl who would have no reason to be familiar with what was happening in Russia, the USA, or Japan. My final concern rests with the length. Some readers will be able to tackle the 500-plus pages without too much struggle, but many others would need a solid amount of in-class time and support to finish the novel.
My final call: this novel is probably not for everyone. I would likely give this book as an option for an opt-in challenge for the students that are strong readers, possibly with some sort of extra credit opportunity. It’s an excellent piece of literature for teens or young adults, and something that I would recommend reading before jumping into the grittier works about World War Two and the Holocaust.
Though this novel itself is not particularly cheerful, happy reading!