I’m late to the game for this 2005 book, The Book Thief. It was a New York Times #1 Bestseller written by Markus Zusak; a fictional story of a 9-year old girl fostered in a home near Munich, Germany in the late 30s – 1943, a bleak time of food shortages, Nazism, basement bomb shelters, Hitler Youth and Jewish prisoners. Zusak’s point of view and figurative writing style deserve an investigation.
Zusak chose Death, the collector of souls, as narrator of the story, which at first seemed peculiar to me. But the perspective grew on me. He explains in the notes at the end of the book.
Here’s a book set during war. Everyone says war and death are best friends. Death is ever-present during war. Zusak portrayed Death as exhausted by its eternal existence and endless collection of souls. It was afraid of humans – because it has seen the obliteration we’ve perpetrated on each other throughout the ages – and it tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a 9-year old girl, to prove that humans are actually worth it.
Example of Death’s POV: an early encounter with Hans Hubermann, Liesel’s foster-father in the heat of battle in WW I
The first time we were in the vicinity of each other, Hans was twenty-two years old, fighting in France. The majority of young men in his platoon were eager to fight. Hans wasn’t so sure. I had taken a few of them along the way, but you could say I never even came close to touching Hans Hubermann. He was either too lucky, or he deserved to live, or there was a good reason for him to live. In the army, he didn’t stick out at either end. He ran in the middle, climbed in the middle, and he could shoot straight enough so as not to affront his superiors. Nor did he excel enough to be one of the first chosen to run straight to me.
I hope that readers of any age will seen another side of Nazi Germany, where certain people did hide their Jewish friends to save their lives (at the risk of their own). I wanted them to see people who were unwilling to fly the Nazi flag, and boys and girls who thought the Hitler Youth was boring and ridiculous. If nothing else there’s another side that lives beneath the propaganda reels that are still so effective decades later. Those were the pockets I was interested in.
Example of Perspective: Liesel’s foster-father, Hans Hubermann comforts a Jewish prison on a march through their town
It happened so quickly.
The hand that held firmly to Liesel’s let it drop to her side as the man came struggling by. … Papa reached into his paint cart and pulled something out. He made his way through the people, onto the road.
The Jew stood before him, expecting another handful of derision, but he watched with everyone else as Hans Hubermann held his hand out and presented a piece of bread, like magic.
When it changed hands, the Jew slid down. He fell to his knees and held Papa’s shins. He buried his face between them and thanked him. …
Wading through a soldier was soon on the scene of the crime. He studied the kneeling man and Papa, and looked at the crowd. … The Jew was whipped six times. On his back, his head, and his legs. “You filth! You swine!” …
Then is was Papa’s turn. … The sound sickened her and she expected cracks to appear on her papa’s body. He was struck four times before he, too, hit the ground. … Only as they walked away did they notice the bread sitting rejected on the street.
I like the idea that every page in every book can have a gem on it. It’s probably what I love most about writing – that words can be used in a way that’s like a child playing in a sandpit, rearranging things, swapping them around.
Examples of Figurative Language:
1. Liesel’s Reaction to losing her mother’s client: She was suddenly aware of how empty her feet felt inside her shoes. Something ridiculed her throat. She trembled. When finally she reached out and took possession of the letter, she noticed the sound of the clock in the library. Grimly, she realized that clocks don’t make a sound that even remotely resembles ticking, tocking. It was the sound of a hammer, upside down, hacking methodically at the earth. It was the sound of a grave. If only mine was ready now she thought – because Liesel Meminger, at that moment, wanted to die.
2. Papa playing the accordion: Papa’s bread and jam would be half eaten on his plate, curled into the shape of bite marks, and the music would look Liesel in the face. I know it sounds strange, but that’s how it felt to her. Papa’s right hand strolled the tooth-coloured keys. His left hit the buttons. (She especially loved to see him hit the silver, sparkled button – the C major.) The accordion’s scratched yet shiny black exterior came back and forth as his arms squeezed the dusty bellows, making it suck in the air and throw it back out. In the kitchen on those mornings, Papa made the accordion live. I guess it makes sense, when you really think about it.
How do we tell if something’s alive?
You check for breathing.
3. Liesel recognizing her Jewish friend in a parade of prisoners: From the inside, the stream of Jews was a murky disaster of arms and legs. Ragged uniforms. No soldier had seen her yet, and Max gave her a warning. “You have to let go of me, Liesel.” He even tried to push her away, but the girl was too strong. Max’s starving arms could not sway her, and she walked on, between the filth, the hunger and confusion.
After a long line of steps, the first soldier noticed.
“Hey!” he called in. He pointed with his whip. “Hey, girl, what are you doing? Get out of there.”
When she ignored him completely, the soldier used his arm to separate the stickiness of people. He shoved them aside and made his way through. He loomed above her as Liesel struggled on and noticed the strangled expression on Max Vandenburg’s face. She had seen him afraid, but never like this.
The soldier took her.
His hands manhandled her clothes. She could feel the bones in his fingers and the ball of each knuckle. They tore at her skin. “I said get out!” he ordered her, and now he dragged the girl to the side and flung her into the wall of on looking Germans. It was getting warmer. The sun burned her face. The girl had landed sprawling with pain, but now she stood again. She recovered and waited. She reentered.
This time Liesel made her way through from the back.
Ahead, she could just see the distinct twigs of hair and walked again toward them. This time she did not reach out – she stopped. … He stood absolutely still as the others swerved morosely around him, leaving him completely alone. His eyes staggered, and it was so simple. … Hot tears fought for room in her eyes as she would not let them out. Better to stand resolute and proud. … He did not drop to his knees. People and Jews and clouds all stopped. They watched.
As he stood, Max looked first at the girl and then stared directly into the sky who was wide and blue and magnificent. There were heavy beams – planks of sun – falling randomly, wonderfully to the road. Clouds arched their backs to look behind as they started again to move on. “It’s such a beautiful day,” he said, and his voice was in many pieces. A great day to die. A great day to die, like this. … Standing, he was whipped.