Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Oh wow. Where to begin? I give 5 stars to this book. It was beautiful and tragic. How can it be both? So many things in life-and death-are both.

This book is Historical Fiction (I love this genre!) set in WWII Germany. The narrator is Death. His tone is (as you find out through some Q&A with the author) perfect. At first, Death as narrator didn't work, but then Zusak came back to him and changed some things and made it perfect. Death must come to collect souls, release them from their bodies and carry them to wherever he takes them (it is left to the imagination, insert your own belief system here, I suppose). He is tired. He is over worked. Especially during a war. Why do humans do this much killing of each other? But every once in awhile, he notices someone living. And the person of special interest to him is Liesel Meminger, a young girl of 9 at the opening of the book, who is acquainted with death. We don't know Liesel's father, but her mother has given her to foster care, we don't really know exactly why, but it is inferred that her mother wasn't part of the right political party at the time, and therefore viewed herself as a direct threat to the safety of her children. So the story unfolds as Liesel begins life with some foster parents on Himmel St. in Molching, Germany. Hans and Rosa. They have 2 grown children of their own. They are Christian (as is Liesel). Which isn't condemned but certainly not entirely safe to be either.

Theirs is the story of people in Germany who did NOT buy into what Hitler said. They didn't believe that Jews were a scourge. They show you the impoverished state of the people of Germany under Hitler's rule. His country was falling apart from the inside out as he touted the German Ideal. As a line in the movie "Captain America" states "People forget that first country the Nazi's invaded was their own." You had to "apply" to become a member of the Nazi party and sometimes they denied you because they thought you were too sympathetic to the Jews. Or they left your application pending indefinitely. And you really couldn't get much work if you weren't a member of the party. And then there was hiding Jews.......

In the Q&A section at the back with the author, this exchange was made:

Q: There are many novels set during the Holocaust, but The Book Thief offers a different perspective. What do you most want teenage readers to understand about Liesel's story and this dark period in our world's history?

A: I honestly just hope that they'll never forget the characters. This is the first time I've ever missed characters that I've written-especially Liesel and Rudy. I also hope that readers of any age will see another side of Nazi Germany, where certain people did hide their Jewish friends to save their lives (at the risk of their own). I wanted them to see people who were unwilling to fly the Nazi flag, and boys and girls who thought the Hitler Youth was boring and ridiculous. If nothing else, there's another side that lives beneath the propaganda reels that are still so effective decades later. Those were the pockets I was interested in.

And let me tell you how refreshing it was to read more of this side. I've read Corrie Ten Boom's story (and reviewed it on here) she and her family were also Christian's who hid their Jewish friends and ended up being sent to concentrations camps because of it. But this was another part of it entirely. This was the part of the citizenship that suffered at Hitler's hand not necessarily because of their offenses (although the minor infractions were punished severely), but because they weren't compliant enough. It gives me hope to know that not EVERYONE was duped by Hitler. Even some of the children and youth were able to see through the facade. 

At several points, there are stories within stories, and one such describes the power of words:

  There was once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life:
      1. He would part his hair on the opposite side to everyone else
      2. He would make himself a small, strange mustache
      3. He would one day rule the world

  The young man wandered around for quite some time, thinking, planning, and figuring out exactly how to make the world his. Then one day, out of nowhere, it struck him-the perfect plan. He'd seen a mother walking with her child. At one point, she admonished the small boy, until finally, he began to cry. Within a few minutes, she spoke very softly to him, after which he was soothed and even smiled.
   The young man rushed to the woman and embraced her. "Words!" He grinned. "What?" But there was no reply. He was already gone.
   Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. "I will never fire a gun," he devised. "I will not have to." Still, he was not rash. Let's allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.
  He planted them day and night, and cultivated them.
  He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany....It was a nation of farmed thoughts.
  While the words were growing, our young Fuhrer also planted seeds to create symbols, and these, too, were well on their way to full boom. Now the time had come. The Fuhrer was ready.
  He invited his people toward his own glorious heart, beckoning them with his finest, ugliest words, handpicked from his forests. And the people came.
  They were all placed on a conveyor belt and run through a rampant machine that gave them a lifetime in ten minutes. Words were fed to them. Time disappeared and they now knew everything they needed to know. They were hypnotized.

I hope I never live to see the day when something like this happens again. However, I worry that people get so desperate to hear the words they want to hear that they will believe them, no matter how irrational they may be. That we won't care if they are lies because they sound good. I guess from this we learn that "The pen is mightier than the sword" in some cases. Words can hurt more than sticks and stones-both psychologically and physically (in the case of Nazi Germany). We must use our words for good. Especially words of reason. Don't get sucked in to propaganda from any political spectrum. Never stop thinking for yourself or questioning or voicing your opinion-and being willing to change your opinion should rational information be presented to challenge it. If there ever comes a time when reasonable, rational words start to be ridiculed, beware.

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