Monday, August 04, 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This book was chosen as a Prinz Award Honor Book, was winner of the National Jewish Book Award, and received all types of star and rave reviews. But I have to confess, when I first started reading it I was not immediately drawn in. I thought the beginning was very slow going. However, once I got into the story I was able to see why it won such accolades. I couldn't help but to compare it to other Holocaust stories such as Diary of a Young Girl, Night, and Number the Stars. I think this book is right up there with these literary classics!

There are many parts of the book that merit discussion- the character of Liesel, who loses her family, experiences life in Nazi Germany but yet finds something special in books- who loves books and words so much so that she risks her life to steal them. The part of the book where she steals the book from the Nazi's book burning spree had me at the edge of my seat. How could you not love this character?! (We seem to have a theme this year of feisty, strong, female characters!) Her relationship with Hans, her foster father, is also intriguing, their compassion for helping others is compelling.

The whole literary device of using Death as the narrator is fascinating and makes for a unique twist to the traditional Holocaust stories. And Death is a great character! One review I read stated: "First, I think Zusak has created one of the all-time great characters/narrators in Death. I know that sounds funny, but Death, in this story, is human, humane, compassionate, and a bit humorous. At the end of the book, Death says, "I am haunted by humans." In some ways, I think Death is haunted by humanity - both the good and the bad parts. When Death does take children in the story, his compassion and gentleness moved me to tears." I couldn't have said it better myself.

I could absolutely see this as a companion book to Night or Diary of a Young Girl because it does tell the story of the Holocaust from such a different perspective- first of all from the perspective of Death, but also from the perspective of an average German, who had no choice but to endure and survive.

Once again, I loved the epilogue. I was very impressed with the way Zusak pulled all the threads of the story together in such a satisfying way. I like completion so this was a great ending for me.

There are some many aspects of this book I would like to delve into...almost makes me wish we could talk about this one in person!

The down side- I wonder if this book is too advanced for some students? Would any of you recommend it for 9th grade- which is when Night is typically taught? I thought you definitely had to have some knowledge of Nazi Germany to understand the story. And does the sophisticated use of the narrator, of irony, multiple themes etc...make it too challenging for high school? I am anxious to hear what everyone else thought.


Cathy said...

I kept wondering how the author could come up woth such a great story. With every twist and turn I was just in awe of the author's ability.
I liked that the book was written from a German perspective. It showed that not all Germans were true Nazis but that many had to join to survive. It showed the caring of a foster parent. I likened the foster mother to the neighbor in Chanda, a woman not to show her true emotions easily but with a very strong sense of right and wrong. There was never a question that they would take in a Jew.
Therewas only one part of the book that I felt was out of place and that was when Liesel went onto the line of prisoners. I know it was a convention to allow her to tell her boyfriend but I do not believe that she would have done this. One she knew what would happen to her family and to the man she desperately wanted saved. If Hans had not done something similar then I could see it happening. I did think that the kids would throw the bread and run that seemed typial of kids.
I cried at the end of this story. I wondered how Liesel managed to leave Germany.
As to reading this with high school students I think it would be good for 10th on up. I think 9th graders may become a little overwhelmed and confused at parts. By the end of 10th grade students have learned about WWII and have read Diary of Anne Frank and Night so this would be a good other perspective.

Dawn said...

I really liked this book, but it did take me a while to get into it too. Normally while reading I form an opinion and have many questions, but I don’t even know what to say about this book now that I am done reading it. I never really thought about the Germans that weren’t true Nazis. It really did grab my attention and shed new light on what was going on in the world at that time.

Liesel’s character endured so much in life. I wonder if she was a strong person because of what she went through, or if she would have been a strong person regardless of her life experiences?

I would use this book for literature circles for 11th or 12th grade. I am sure some underclassmen would enjoy it too and could be used for book reports for global studies. It would be great to pick out a portion of the book to read to a global studies class when the topic comes up. I just think that it could open up a discussion about different opinions and points of view about what was taking place at that time.

Kathy J. said...

I agree with Dawn...I think one of the best parts of this books was the different perspectives/points of view represented. It would certainly be a great book to discuss in a global class.

Maria said...

I was expecting it to be slow because a few people told me it was hard to get into. However, I couldn't put it down. I love the use of Death as the narrator; he was a multifaceted character presented in a very different light than most people think. I especially loved his dry sarcasm at times throughout the book, yet he had a compassionate quality and a "human" air about him. Germany during WWII is a perfect setting both for Death's purposes and for the courage of the human soul as well as the dark side of humanity. That time period is extremely interesting and unique - people have their own theories and feelings about it. Hitler was considered charismatic, yet one still wonders how he could get people to commit such inhumane acts. This book brings out the strength in words saying that Hitler uses words to gain strength, support, and a following. His words gave people the permission to commit these acts; his words made promises to the population; his words made people feel safe. Even Death gave him credit for nothing other than an iron will. He used his words to get people to believe in him and to buy into his ideals. I loved the Hubermanns, Max, Rudy, and, of course, Liesel. They did not give into the words of Hitler, yet they understood the importance of the words themselves. Hans's minimal use of words placed more importance on the words he used when he did speak. Liesel used her words cathartically to tell her story. I found it interesting that Death held onto the book until Liesel's time came to meet him. Those of you who know me know that I cried like an idiot when Himmel street was bombed. I, too, wanted to know more about Liesel after this period and how she moved on. As for using this book in school, I would recommend it to those with a serious interest in history and higher level readers. I wonder if AP/Honors kids would do well with this book. I think the style of writing, as well as the use of figurative language and historical knowledge might be too diffacult a read for an average teenager.

Oh yaeh, Cathy said she didn't think Liesel would have gone into the crowd of Jews and talk to Max especially since she saw her Papa get whipped for it earlier in the book. I didn't see it that way. I think she was willing to take the whipping/accept the consequences BECAUSE Hans selflessly did a similar thing. I think her need to see/connect with Max gave her the courage to move forward. As Kathy J. said, we seem to have a theme of strong female characters so far.

Maria said...

PS - I have 2 spelling typos that I noticed - yaeh (yeah) and diffacult (difficult)....yes I can spell :) there may be more, but that's all I found at 11:21 pm...

Until the next book...

Cathy said...

I have to say that Liesel knew her actions would hurt Max. I think the author used her going into the march as a method to allow her to tell Rudy about Max. It gave the opportunity to stregthen their relationship. However, I still feel it was out of character given the circumstances and it was odd that there were no repercussions for the family after she did that. It just seemed out of place to me.

cvanslyk said...

I really liked this book but thought it would be more exciting than it was. However, it got better as it went along. Hans Hubermann was a very honorable person. He taught Liesel how to read and sat with her when she had nightmares. At first, I thought that the narrator was God instead of death but this became clearer as I read farther. This book reminded me of the "Boy in The Striped Pajamas" because of their unusual perspectives. In that book the voice was the son of one of the SS soldiers. I don't think I would use this book with underclassmen unless they were really interested in reading more about the Holocaust. It would go along well with books like "Night" and "Diary of Anne Frank". The issue about censoring books and stealing them would be a great topic for discussion and debate. What did these kids think about when Liesal started stealing books from her mother's employment? My senior 15:1 students
are usually interested in Hitler's Germany and often ask to do more readings and projects on the Holocaust. This book could also be used as part of a unit on character education or for ideas for research projects. Zusak makes several references to Dachau which was a death camp in Germany. I actually visited Dachau during a trip to Europe a few years ago. It was impossible to even imagine the evil and hatred that took place there. It was a very emotional, haunting and spiritual place to go to. However, it is important that kids learn about this in order to not let it be repeated in their lifetimes or beyond.

Rebecca Kennedy said...

I really enjoyed this book. In the very beginning I was having a little trouble getting into it and was almost frustrated by Death's viewpoint because I feel like I wasn't getting all of the story.
But, in no time at all I was deeply involved in the book and all of the characters including the narrator. I liked that the author chose to use Death as the narrator, I think it was a very unique viewpoint in horrible times where Death was a daily part of peoples lives.

I loved Hans Hubermanns, his compassion an willingness to stand up for what he believed in was admirable. I too cried when the bombing occurred and wished that at least Hans had survived with Liesel.

I am glad the the author included the epilogue, I feel it tied together the story. However, I found myself wondering what happened to Liesel in between the story's ending and the epilogue.

I do think this book is a little advanced for many students but for those seriously interested in the subject area I would definitely recommend it. I think many interesting discussions could come from reading this book and I would be curious to see what students thought about the many unique viewpoints expressed in this novel.

chris klafehn said...

I have to agree with the others, the book was slow to start, however I
ended up really liking it and found it hard to put down. I found Death
as the narrator interesting. I thought Liesel was a very interesting
character; her boldness to steal books from others was just amazing. I
wish some of my students felt so moved by reading they would take books
(I am not in favor of stealing, but my students never seem overly
motivated to read). Liesel's relationships in the book were not exactly
what I expected, yet when I reflect on them they seem to make sense.
For example, with Hans, Liesel makes a connection easily is that because
he was a man and it was her mother that put her in foster care? With
Rudy, she truly cared for him, yet she seemed to have the need to be in
control of their relationship. When she ran to Max during the march and
was whipped, especially after seeing Hans whipped made me feel that Max
was her hope for the future and Liesel seems scared to let him get away.
When he left Himmel Street she did not know what had happen to Max, so
when he marched by she felt the urge to cling to what he represented for
her. I wonder if she felt Max’s survival was somewhat of a ray of hope
that her mother was alive somewhere as well?? I agree this book would
fit nicely in an AP World History class.

rebeccakryger said...

I agree that at the start of this novel, I was unsure about the use of Death as the narrative voice. I'm still not totally convinced it was necessary in telling the story, but it was better as the novel progressed. I think this would be a great novel to use in a holocaust literature lit circle--could be paired with Night, Maus, or others. This novel maybe be challenging for many readers simply because of its length, but it would be a great choice for some of our stronger readers. I really felt connected to the characters throughout the novel and was touched by levels of emotion the author was able to capture. Liesel faced so many obstacles in her life, and I was able to connect to her hardships, feeling like I was right there with her. Despite the length of this novel (in reading it as a book for students), I really enjoyed it!

Kim Seeley said...

Ok, here comes honest Kim... not on the top of my list. If I can't get into a book, then I have a hard time throughout the whole story. I definitely thought it was above 9th grade, especially the kids in the 15:1. It just wasn't for me. I won't say much more! haha. I am currently reading the next book and am liking that much better... so far!