The Book Thief. Markus Zusak.

Zusak, Marcus. The Book Thief. Knopf, New York. 2005. F; 07/13

This was presented to me by the lady at the Sechelt bookstore apologetically. “It’s a children’s book, really” she said. But she thought I would like it, and I did.

But not really until the very end. There is a fair bit of heavy going stylistically and plot-wise. And not having read an awful lot of adolescent fiction lately, I’m not sure who this book is aimed at. I think it would be a pretty determined and literate 13-to-15-year-old who could keep at it to the end. But I could be wrong about that.

Young Liesel (whose age spans 11-15 during the story) is a German girl whose family dies and who is adopted by a kindly German couple in a small town early in the War. She finds a book on grave digging, and uses it to teach herself literacy, helped along by her genuinely loving stepfather. The couple receives and hides a young Jewish man, risking their lives to honour a promise made by the man of the house. Liesel lives out the years of the war including becoming ambiguously romantically but not intimately involved with the hidden Jew, growing up with a male friend who keeps trying to kiss her, and developing a relationship with the town’s mayor’s wife who has a library and ambiguously encourages Liesel to steal its books.

We encounter good and bad older teenage characters, sycophants and clandestine critics of Hitler, and the eventual destruction of the town by allied bombing.

There is a dusting of down-talk in the style, and something a little arch in the narrator being Death, who has the kind of sense of humour that might appeal to an older child or young teenager.  Much of the narration and unexplained interposition of titles and bold-type commentary seems just an awkward attempt at adolescent argot. Hard to know if some of the really off-the-mark figures are intentionally so: “In the uneven circle, the minutes soaked by.” Soaked? Eventual ambiguity about who is talking might mitigate this.

You might think there should be a hint of who the intended audience is in the handling of sex. But it’s subtle, and in the end it manages to address any age over about eight. Liesel at 13 is flat-chested and has not had a period. But we are told about the hidden Jew Max coming into her bed, before we understand that he is doing so because he is ill. The girl is preoccupied with the idea of her friend Rudy naked, and he never abandons his half-teasing requests for a smooch. There’s nothing didactic to suggest we’re talking to children or prurient to attract an adult looking for stimulation.

So many Holocaust stories! But this one is written from the German point of view. It’s also a handy gratuitous attribute of this genre that terrible seriousness is a given, you don’t have to strive for it. And you can be cute and even funny without losing it. The crazy cartoons in Maus by Art Spiegelman come to mind.

It wasn’t until the last few pages, PLOT ALERT Death describing Liesel’s surviving the bombing, she and Max the romantic couple reunited, and the fascinating narrative and authorial ambiguity as Death finally comes for the book thief END PLOT ALERT that my imagination was captivated. But it was. 8.2/7.4.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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