Novels that Nourish: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak Posted on 31 Oct 16:18
My favorite teacher in high school was highly eccentric and occasionally out-and-out odd, most geniuses are. He was in a tricky spot when I was in his class. I don’t know how I became aware of sad facts like some nights he slept in his car, but I did. Plenty of days he came to class disheveled and spent. But he came alive when he spoke of Chaucer and Dante. His face literally illuminated when he let us in on secrets like Chaucer wasn’t too different from a bigoted grandfather. Yes, he reveled in talking about flatulence and cheating wives, but Chaucer’s tales were ultimately edifying as they probed the depths of virtue. I could appreciate Chaucer’s life experience, but I didn’t want to be anything like him. My teacher, tousled and tossed, was shaping my perceptions. He showed me that books are like bread—the staff of life—because they have the ability to sustain and support us, to nourish us, to help us over the rough places in life. I look to luminaries like Atticus Finch, Anne Elliott, and The Alchemist’s Santiago for life guidance; they do not disappoint.
Years ago I read The Book Thief, and well over a thousand days later, I haven’t forgotten about precocious Liesel Meminger. Liesel is a book thief. (No surprise considering the title.) She lives in Germany with her foster family during World War II, still reeling from her brother’s death and her parents capture. Her new papa, Hans, comforts her by teaching her to read. Words soothe her. She shares her book interests with Max, a Jew hiding in her parent’s basement. Liesel’s relationship with Max is poignant enough to help him cheat death, which hovers over him.
Death is the narrator of the novel, which is a new one. Zusak needed a narrator who could supply Liesel’s point of view, but he also needed someone to share snapshots of the war outside of Himmel Street. By using death as the narrator, he was able to offer sobering and inspiring insights into the human condition. We can see the horror and the sublime of human choice. Of course there’s resilience in young Liesel that inspires palpable hope in the reader—the kind of hope Anne Frank gave us. The Book Thief is a hauntingly beautiful novel that deserves to be read more than once over the years. (You may want to read The Book Thief now and watch the film adaptation this November!)