Friday, December 06, 2013

Reflections: The Book Thief

The Book Thief is a poignant story of a German girl coping with the loss of her family as she gradually grows to love her foster family during the bitter and terrible times of World War II. Even before she blossoms into a woman, Liesel witnesses far too much brutality and pain. One of her first coping instincts is to pick up a book, a memorabilia of sorts, to remind her of her family. Never mind that she doesn’t know how to read, she still carries the book with her like a treasured and comforting teddy bear. Her kind foster father realizes this and he teaches her to read. Reading is her blessing, her ultimate coping mechanism to make sense of the world around her and to lose herself in other beautiful worlds. The power of words is her savior - to express, to understand, to create, and to hold onto thoughts far away from her crushing reality. And so, she begins collecting, and then “stealing” books, as meticulously and cautiously as a bird gathers twigs to build its nest. As Liesel wades through the muddled waters of her adolescence, she builds relationships with her foster family and neighbors, particularly a young boy her age, and most notably, a battered Jew hiding in her foster family’s basement. Books and a handful of people are all she has left, but the war threatens to take it all from yet another innocent soul.

One of the most memorable aspects of this book is the narrator. The narrator is Death himself. But this version of Death has a soul, a penchant for colors, wit, humor, and even compassion. An irony. Death’s perspectives on war, and his “duty” and attachment towards mortals feel good to read, but he’s personified like a “guardian angel” without wings; he seems like an angel in disguise recruited for the wrong job. Despite the fairy tale nature of how Death is portrayed, the irony is not lost and he is a great narrator. After the initial few chapters you forget who the narrator is because the ominousness that initially gripped you fades away.

The writing is the best part of this story. It is beautiful, poetic and touching. The characters begin to have a life of their own and their pain and anguish become palpable. Every character is memorable and distinct. This is also the first book I have read that recounts the sufferings undergone by non-Jewish Germans. I thought the author was sensitive and insightful about the ways in which war spreads its tentacles (sorry for the horrible metaphor).

This is a book that is well worth reading for the beautiful writing and interesting characters.

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