Saturday, October 3, 2009

Liesel Hubermann, the good saumensch in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief

Even though my days of being carded for a cocktail seem to be long over, and my crow's feet sprout a new toe each day, I love reading young adult novels. In addition to following teenagers around in the public library and at bookstores in search of my next fix, I've also developed the habit of interrogating my students on any non-assigned text they carry. (typical junkie behavior)

My students become accustomed to me picking up a book off their desk, reading the back and asking, "Any good?"

I usually get one of three responses:

1) A shrug and a flash of the cover to expose Anime illustrations and Japanese text, in which case I, in turn, shrug and walk away.

2) "OMG! Yes.." high pitched unintelligible squeals, "vampires...werewolf" more squeals, "he's so hot!" I then back away slowly.

3) "Yes! It's intense. You see it's about this girl and she's on drugs, and her dad rapes her, and she cuts herself, and she's gonna kill herself, but there's this boy, and he's on drugs..." I nod my head and bite my lip looking really serious, then make a mental note to NOT read that book. (I'm looking to get high on a heroine, not depressed about heroin)

Well, last spring I went through this same routine with a particularly clever and literate student, and her response made me check out the book from the library that day.

I read the flap copy, but was still unsure of what it was about.

"Any good?" I asked.

"Yes! Soooo good. You have to read it, I--just read it, oh my god."

"What's it about?"

"Just--just read it."

So, I did and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak now ranks as one of my favorite books of all time.

SPOILER ALERT: Now, I have no intention of spoiling the ending of this book. That would be cruel and unusual punishment. But, I had no idea what this book was about when I started reading it, and I think that added to my enjoyment. I wish the same enjoyment for you. So, just read it.

I'm also afraid my brief synopsis might make this book sound depressing, and if you're anything like me, that means you won't read it. (The movie, Hotel Rwanda sat on top of my DVD player for months, I'd heard it was good, but I knew what it was about, and I just never really wanted to watch it.)

Zusak's brilliance, however, is that despite its subject matter, and despite the tragedies within The Book Thief, I would never describe it as depressing.

It's about Liesel Meminger, a little girl who is sent to live with foster parents in Nazi Germany. The Book Thief is narrated by Death.

Zusak is a genius for how he breaks convention with his narrator. The structure of the text is sometimes choppy, with Death giving an aside and taking us out of the main plot, and describing some seemingly unrelated event or soul collection. Death also tells us the outcome of the characters straight off the bat, in his cryptic, non-human way, of course. It's amazing how there's no obvious attempt at building suspense. I knew a character would die, yet I found myself unable to put it down, and turning the pages just so I could find out how the foretold events would transpire.

Death describes the color of the sky each time he takes a soul and his detachment at the human tragedy of the Holocaust makes the book chilling, but bearable.

Of the millions of souls he reaps, of all the horrific things he witnesses, Death chooses to tell us about Liesel. Her brother dies on a train in the snow, on the way to Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents.

Rosa calls Liesel saumensch (swine-girl) and hits her with a wooden spoon for misbehaving. Hans plays the accordion and comforts Liesel when she screams from her nightmares every single night.

Liesel befriends Rudy Steiner and when their hatred of Hitler, and frustration of starving under Nazi control, becomes unbearable, they steal. They're thieves and that makes them feel better.

Liesel struggles with being a good girl. Her dead brother appears to admonish her when she loses her temper, and doing what's right is constantly at odds with doing what's necessary for survival in Nazi Germany. But despite her thieving, actually because of her thieving, Liesel is good.

Liesel is courageous. She survives the deaths of loved ones, does whatever she can to keep her family safe, and gives hope to a room full of terrified neighbors. Liesel doesn't have any super powers and she doesn't defeat any bad guys, but she's one of the most heroic characters I've had the privilege of reading about.

And believe me, reading The Book Thief is a privilege. As a writer, Zusak's work is the beat-my-head-against-the-wall-because-I'll-never-be-able-to-write-like-this kind of inspiring.

Ok, so I've already said too much. Go read The Book Thief.

I'm off to troll my bookshelves in search of the next heroine to get hooked on.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree. Zusak's writing is so beautiful it hurts. I actually wrote a fanfiction of the book (a crossover with Harry Potter, actually. Because you know that Death would have noticed the fact that a baby was not killed by the Killing Curse and Harry saw so many people die, his story as narrated by Death was just begging to be written) and I did my very best to imitate it, but really came nowhere close. But I had a blast doing it because Harry Potter and The Book Thief are two of my absolute favorites, up there with Les Miserables and A Separate Peace (It seems I like sad--not depressing--books. I mean, just like in The Book Thief, pretty much every character dies in Les Miserables.). All I can hope is that some Harry Potter fan who has never read the book might stumble upon my story and read The Book Thief because of it. That would be the greatest reward. I'm really sad that my family, for some reason, does not trust my good taste so they refuse to read it.

    For me it's the kind of book that I really don't need to see it as a film because the author gave so much life to the story that a movie really couldn't add to it (Although there's a small part of me that would love to see Max and Liesel hug and cry and fall to the floor.)