The Book Thief by Markus Zusak -25 May

There was a date change in May, but seven of us were able to get together on Monday, May 25th, to discuss The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. The story is set in Nazi Germany, and is narrated by Death, who doesn't appear to enjoy his job, but enjoys his encounters with a little girl, Liesel Meminger, who discovers the world of the printed word via a grave-digger's handbook, and goes on to "acquire" a variety of other books before her world completes its collapse.
While reading the book, I took plenty of notes regarding the author's descriptive language, and particularly references to colors. Death introduces himself, saying, "I will be standing over you... Your soul will be in my arms. A colour will be perched on my shoulder... The question is, what colour will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying? Personally, I like a chocolate-coloured sky... I do, however, try to enjoy every colour I see... It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax." When he thinks back on his encounters with Liesl, the three colors that "resonate the most" are red, white and black. Three small designs - a rectangle, a circle and a swastika - help us to make the connection. With regard to Lieslel's foster-father, Death says, "It's hard not to like a man who not only notices the colours, but speaks them." So, despite Death's explanation, I kicked off the discussion with the question, "Why does Death make a point of noticing colors?" Denise replied that Death makes you see things in a way you wouldn't otherwise. As Max's uncle dies, "The light in the window was grey and orange, the colour of summer's skin."

Jan said that The Book Thief reminded her of A River Runs Through It, and said that she was haunted at the end of the book. She felt that Rudy's death was announced too soon, and that Death, as narrator, does not reconcile why Rudy died. Did Rudy have to die in order for Liesel to kiss him at last? We didn't want Rudy to die, and we wanted even less to know about it in advance. Did Rudy's death leave a place for Max, the Jew whom the family hid in their basement, and Liesel? Do they, Max and Liesel, in fact, have a life together after the war? This is not necessarily clear, but would certainly have been impossible if Rudy had lived. Death says that Liesel was living in Sydney, Australia, when he "took her away," and we noted that the author lives in Sydney, that his mother's name was Lisa (Elisabeth), and that he thanked his parents "for the stories we find hard to believe." We were divided on the question of sneaking a peek at the end of a book to relieve the suspense.
The Book Thief was originally published in Australia specifically for adults but was marketed in the US as a young-adult novel, and was on the New York Times Children's Bestseller List for over 80 weeks, something none of us could understand. We talked about what we were required to read in school, and noted that children's "classics" are read to 7-year-olds. Katharine J said she was terrified listening to Alice in Wonderland, and we all agreed that the tales of the brothers Grimm are indeed pretty grim. The Book Thief is not all that gruesome compared to some other "young adult" literature. (Lord of the Flies came to mind.) Karen mentioned Margaret Atwood, and what is suitable for young people. Someone said boys might relate more to The Book Thief than would girls. Katharine C said she sees Death as an evil force, and Denise asked why. The words "trivial" and "trite" also were mentioned, but Katharine J said Death could be a "release." We ended this part of the discussion by saying that Death is not evil. Death is a fact. We humans are a cause, and Death is a result. His own words, in fact, were, "I am not violent. I am not malicious. I am a result." He also says, regarding war, "I've seen so many young men over the years who think they're running at other young men. They are not. They are running at me." We are all moving toward Death.

We talked a bit about our most and least favorite characters. Denise found the mayor's wife "intriguing." She felt that she conspired early on with Liesel, and acted as a shield for her. Foster-mother Rosa was also a shield, although no one specifically said she liked Rosa Hubermann. Katharine C said her favorite character was foster-father Hans Hubermann. She said Rudy can't be a favorite character because he dies. Denise said that Max is a catalyst, but felt that as a character, he's absent. We noted that the German question has never been resolved. How much did the "ordinary" Germans know, and when? Perhaps one day some diaries/journals will come to light and help to answer the question. We also questioned whether you can break people's spirits by torture.Unfortunately, I didn't note any remarks about the author's style, but I seem to remember that someone didn't particularly care for the bold-faced insertions throughout the text, such as "A Small Theory," "An Observation," "A Small Question and its Answer," "A Small but Noteworthy Note," etc. I, on the other hand, felt they were nice little points of reference. We did mention the books within the book, and the fact that Max had painted over the pages of Mein Kampf in order to write his own story for Liesel. We questioned whether Liesel truly detested the mayor and his wife. We talked briefly about Liesel returning the mayor's wife's plate, and the subsequent departure of Liesel's dead brother from her dreams. We noted the brief mention of the French in Death's diary, the idea of universality: "There was a group of French Jews in a German prison, on Polish soil... They were French, they were Jews, and they were you."
At various points during the discussion, I did manage to cite some of the phrases I had copied from Death's narrative, but add them now as a simple list:
"The survivors. They're the ones I can't stand to look at, ... crumbling amongst the jigsaw puzzle of realisation, despair and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs."
"Eleven-year-old paranoia was powerful. Eleven-year-old relief was euphoric."
"The juggling comes to an end now, but the struggling does not. I have Liesel Meminger in one hand, Max Vandenburg in the other. Soon I will clap them together."
"The Duden Dictionary was completely and utterly mistaken, especially with its related words. Silence was not quiet or calm, and it was not peace."
"For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to. Perhaps it's so they can die being right."
"The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle... I'm always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugliness and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing
can be both."


May 2009