Let me emphasize it one more time–this post is for mature audiences only. As this book is set in Nazi-time Germany, and it frequently shows praise upon the by-then German “Führer”, Hitler–among other reasons–it might be too much for the youngest of our audiences to handle. So I’ll mark this post with a Restricted for the Young seal, but for all the young walk away thinking this: luckily I didn’t say anything like “rated PG-13″ or “rated TV-14″. That would be just crazy…oh, and we should probably slap on a Spoiler Alert seal just to be safe.
Anyway, the book I’m about to talk about is probably the darkest title on the Jolly Good Bookie’s schedule. Yet it’s still been considered one of the best and most-talked-about novels of 2006. It’s an award-winning title in various fields: Kirkus Reviews Editor’s Choice of 2006, the 2006 Daniel Elliott Peace Award, Publishers Weekly’s Best Children Book of the Year, etc. And it’s been on the NY Times Children’s Bestsellers list for over 230 weeks. [I'll crunch that down to a comprehensible number: that's over 4 years.] Now what is this amazing book? One that’s got people on their feet? One that’s been considered the book of the year? Well, it all begins with the story of The Book Thief.
Set in 20th-century Nazi Germany, The Book Thief chronicles the story of a young girl known as Liesel Meminger whom lives on Himmel Street with her foster parents, right outside of Munich. Now, “himmel” is German for “heaven”, and who in their right mind would mock a street named after heaven? Now, the book takes place in Nazi Germany during WWII, but mostly the Holocaust, so that’s primarily why the book’s so dark. Unsurprisingly death is at its highest rush hour during the events of the book–actually, Death itself narrates the story. And like the Family Guy personification of Death, he’s surprisingly skilled and even pretty funny. The story begins for the most part with the death of Liesel’s little brother Werner (“His blue eyes stared at the floor, seeing nothing” narrated Death 8-0), and the title of “the book thief” starts at Werner’s grievous funeral. At her brother’s graveside, Liesel comes across a book called The Gravedigger’s Handbook, assuredly and mistakenly left behind by a gravedigger’s apprentice. Despite her age compared to the book, she decides to keep it as a final memento of her brother. Despite the compassion in this act, it is still considered a thievery, and that’s how Liesel starts off as “the book thief”. Soon, she starts working her life of crime as a literal part-time job, but her foster father/accordionist Hans Hubermann takes these books as an opportunity to teach Liesel to read. Pretty soon, she’s sharing her misdemeanors with the rest of the kids on the street during bomb showers as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement. And plus she’s got plenty of friends:
- Max Vandenburg - A Jewish fist fighter whom was taken in by Liesel’s family and sheltered in their own home. He is the son of a WWI fighter that actually faced Hans. He is described with “feather-like hair” and “swampy brown eyes”, and he was stowed away due to the relationship between Hans and Max’s father. Max and Liesel intertwined between their special affinities, and he even wrote two books for her along with a sketchbook that represented his life story. He was taken by the Gestapo to a concentration camp, but managed to reunite with Liesel after the war.
- Rudy Steiner - The arguable deuteragonist–or at least the male protagonist–of the story. He was born eight months before Liesel and is her “bony-legged, sharp-teethed, blue-eyed, lemon-haired” neighbor. Despite being the German ideal, he is against Hitler and the Nazis. He suffers permanent hunger as he lives with six kids, and gained notoriety round the ‘hood because of “the Jesse Owens incident”, where Rudy painted himself with charcoal and ran 100 meters at the local sporting field. He was eventually caught by his father, anyway. He is “gifted” in academic and athletic fields, making him a Nazi Party target of attention, and end up plucking his father when he refuses to be recruited. As he eventually become’s Liesel’s closest friend, he frequently but always unsuccessfully asks her for a kiss. He usually uses this as a comeback when he does a compassionate deed for her, like fishing her most valuable book out of the water.
- Tommy Müller - A friend of Liesel’s and Rudy’s. Due to being stranded in the snow, he has a hearing problem which has evoked various ear surgeries. One dramatic failure damaged his nerves in a way that caused him to have a permanent twitch. This defect has made him the butt of many classmate mockings, and is punished by the head of Hitler Youth for failure to follow instructions.
- Pfiffikus - Not exactly what you’d call a friend, but let’s put him up anyway. He is known solely in the book as the potty-mouth of the neighborhood, and is also a good whistler. His name is actually German for “crafty thing”. Not a big surprise.
And Liesel’s doing the right thing, because some of those kids–well–might not be around after what happens near the end of the book to Himmel Street.
Now, before I even say if this book is good or not, I’m going to tell you why Death, out of all people and perspectives, was chosen as narrator. According to the readers guide at the end of the book, the book’s author Markus Zusak stated that he had made a final decision “with great difficulty”. Apparently everyone knows that war and death are BFFs, and as death couldn’t be more present during war, that was a prime factor in Zusak’s decision. At first, Death was a bit mean-spirited–even for Death. He was “supercilious” (def: Behaving or looking as though one thinks one is superior to others) and enjoyed his work too much. He’d put up hair-raising comments at the sidelines, and showed plenty of delight in his soul pickups. That was when Markus knew The Book Thief wasn’t working. So he went to the 1st and 3rd persons, and half a year later he came back to an exhausted Death; apparently eternity really does wear you out. He was written out to be an anthrophobic (afraid of humans), and his job in the story would say that humans are actually worth it.
Now The Book Thief isn’t actually a bad book, it’s pretty darn good–if not probably the only historical fiction book I really enjoyed reading this year (beside Avi’s Don’t You Know There’s a War On?). It doesn’t have the cleanest rep in various fields, but it’s got intriguing direction and perspective, fast-paced action, appropriate tongue-in-cheek statements or other laughs, and a really big heart to say the least. It goes through a typical day in the life of someone under the Nazis, and portrays messages like sacrifice, friendship, and heroism. All the rest of it–as dark as your usual World War II novel, but especially appealing at that. Now, roll that chart.
4 1/4 out of 5 – Educational value – The book follows the life of several ordinary kids that have had the Nazis brought down on their heads, and how arduous it was to live life without the risk of getting captured or getting roped into an equally dangerous scenario. These “lessons” include how it was like to be part of Hitler Youth to several book-burning episodes. There are also passages from the “Duden Dictionary” scattered throughout the book, giving off the meanings and translations of German words like Lemony Snicket usually defines the “big words” he uses. The perspective of the book translates German statements into English, so it also teaches you a bit of German, like “Verstehst?” stands for “Understand?”, and “Alles gut?” stands for “All good?”
4 out of 5 – Positive messages – Senses of the trials and tribulations people went through often back in the old times, through the powerful and well-played images of the characters. Its ensemble consists lots of characters that show gallant heroism in risking their lives to defend what is right, but also have you ever heard this phrase: “Stand up for what is right, even if you’re standing alone.” This says that you shouldn’t stop at anything to protect the truth.
4 3/4 out of 5 – Positive role models – Liesel is a compassionate, willing, and thoughtful girl that can leave readers thunderstruck and wonderstruck with her perspective on the events in the book, as she constantly switches from reader to writer. Essences of sacrificing, heroism, courage, friendships, sorrow, empathy, and sympathy are portrayed through the book roster. They’ll be moved by the events in the story just by the quality of the narration.
3 1/2 out of 5 – Ease of view – Book Thief isn’t the most comprehensible book, but that doesn’t take off any points in its final score. (Well, it might under Smarts, but…) Some author transitions between Death and Liesel might fool a few readers, but for the most part it has fast-paced perspectives, thoughtful story-lining, and a sweet-as-honey aftertaste.
5 out of 5 – Violence – And lots of it, as the book does take place in Nazi Germany and is very critical to the book’s impact. The large focus on the Führer of the story–Hitler–may leave a few people religiously on end. Hitler’s symbol does appear in various drawings, and there’s definitely a lot of “heil Hitler”-ing. A majority of the violence comes from the war, especially late in the book when Himmel Street gets bombed. Spoiler alert!–People like Rudy, Tommy, and Liesel’s foster parents die in the warlike scene; stomach lurching and/or tears are expected. Just to show she knows her right hook from her left, Liesel beats up a kid at school. Max also beats up his fighting buddy Walter Kugler with a jab to the nose, a right hook, and a punch to the ribs. As Kugler lay on the ground, tears flowed from his eyes but he wasn’t crying; “the tears had been bashed out of him”. Before I read the scene, I also read about lips discolored by blood that would eventually dry across the teeth. When Rudy fails to remember Hitler’s birthday, he gets an awkwardly horrific knife haircut. Before this occurs, with the knife and all you may have expect that Rudy was going to be killed. Liesel also tears up the pages of a book from the library of Ilsa Hermann, the wife of the mayor of Molching. (So I guess there’s “molch” ado about nothing there. ) In one scenario, Rudy tackles Liesel to restrict her from running into a line of Jews to find Max from being led away. Another character named Frau Holtzapfel (known at first for spitting on the Hubermanns’ door every time she passed due to an old fight) has a son that hangs himself from a local laundry’s rafters. A bomber plane is downed at a river’s banks, and Rudy has the heart to console its pilot with a teddy bear as he thanks him with a dying breath. Hans also suffers a broken leg from a truck accident. Max develops an illness around winter 1942 and falls into a deep sleep that lasts for days that turn into weeks. A group of rowdy kids throw Liesel’s stolen book into a river, but Rudy is able to fetch it (remember that kiss he always wanted). One of the drawings shows two people standing at the peak of a mountain of dead bodies–this should remind you of Breaking Dawn. If it doesn’t, then good; you’re clean.
4 out of 5 – Inappropriate Content – There is one chapter called “The Thought of Rudy Naked” which literally contains 100% nudity. Three boys, one of them being Rudy, are forced to take off their clothes in front of a female doctor and perform their “first nude ‘heil Hitler’s”. As one boy undresses, Death states that “his self-respect was around his ankles”. “The thought of Rudy naked” then burns into Liesel’s mind, described as having “great dread”. The chapter uses uneasy words like “genitals” and “penises”. Rudy also keeps nagging at Liesel for a kiss throughout the book, and he never received that kiss for his entire life;–spoiler alert!–Liesel finally gives in and fulfills his wish after he dies in the street bombing.
4 3/4 out of 5 - Language – Lots of expletives in both German and English. “S–t”, “a–”, “a–hole”, “bastard”, “slut”, and more four-letter words roll of the tongue in various occasions. The German equivalents of all these words, and then some, are also used: “scheisse/scheiße” (also combos like “scheisskopf” » “s–t head”), “arschloch”, “saukerl”, and also the commonly used “saumensch”. Religious oaths like “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” and “crucified Christ” are also used, plus other anti-Semitic curses and racist African-American remarks. You may know from the “Jesse Owens incident” that Rudy charcoal-ed himself black and ran the hundred meters. Well, not only is this racist, but I consider it blackface.
2 3/4 out of 5 – Product Placement – Book Thief is deemed “the most talked-about book of 2006″ and has won a bounty of awards, honors, and recognition, but the award that blazons several copies of the book is its “Michael J. Printz honor” title. The only consumerism you’ll ever come across is Hitler’s Mein Kampf (“My Struggle/Battle”) and its impact on the storyline.
3 3/4 out of 5 – Drinking, Drugs, and/or Smoking – Several characters (adults and kids 8-0) smoke and drink. One smoker blows his puff of smoke directly into Liesel’s face, and Holtzapfel once
teaches forces Liesel to smoke. Luckily I hope she won’t be counting on it ever again.
Entertainment: A+ (5 points)
Fun: B+ (3.5 points)
Smarts: A+ (5 points)
Style: A- (4 points)
Read-Again Ratio: A (4 points)
Humor: A- (4 points)
FINAL SCORE: 25.5 out of 30 (heil Sammwak ), 85% out of 100%, 4 out of 5 stars
CONSENSUS: It may have a few smudges on its resumé, but The Book Thief is probably the most engrossing historical fiction book you’ll read, and it’s got the action, the drama, the heart, and the surprises to make sure it doesn’t go down when you first pick it up.
PRICE: (You should probably let your parents take the wheel on this one; I’m just saying.)
- Amazon Hardcover: $10.98 (new: same price, used: $2.90) [45% savings]
- Amazon Paperback: $8.41 (new: $5.50, used: $3.08) [35% savings]
- Amazon Kindle: $9.99 w/ ready Whispersync (new-fangled tech these days allows you to swap between reading and listening) [23% savings]
- Amazon Unabridged Audiobook, Audio CD: $32.13 (new: $26.71, used: $25.15) [37% savings]
- Amazon Unabridged Audible Audio: $30.95, or free (w/ 30-day free trial membership @ Audible.com) with ready Whispersync [25% savings]
- Barnes & Noble Reprinted Paperback: $10.98 (online price) [15% savings]
- Barnes & Noble Marketplace: $2.91 [78% savings]
- Barnes & Noble Nook Book: $9.99 (online price)
So, I guess that’s all for a week with Sammwak. Tune in next week (I really don’t what day I’ll release, so make sure you still have your subscription) for more entertaining romps and everlasting good times. This is Sam, signing out, and stay classy America.
Video of the Week: I’ve already taken up enough space, and besides–nothing I found was dark enough to put up for my audiences. Scenario apologies.