Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Power of the Book

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

For all you preachers out there - read this one. It will preach. In fact, I've already featured it in a Sunday sermon, and could possibly see featuring it in one of my "Faith in Fiction" sermon series that I often do in the summertime. Even if you are not a preacher, there are lots of other reasons to read this. The writing is subtle, compelling, and vivid. One trick that Zusak uses is to mix sensory metaphors - something like "His eyes sounded like a screaming cyclone" or "She tasted the shriek of the approaching bomb." At first, I found this a little distracting, but came to appreciate the technique - it was as if Zusak had found a way to express how humans are, with all our separate parts and senses, one holistic being. In a strange way it also made the images clearer. It's hard to express, but I could taste the bombs.

The two themes that emerged for me from The Book Thief are 1) the power of reading, writing, and words to change lives and (eventually) the world and 2) the increased intensity of experiences of grace, truth, and beauty when they are shown against the stark, ugly backdrop of human sin. The main character, Liesel Meminger, is a broken child who finds her life transformed when she learns to read at the age of 10. Her wary, mistrustful personality also begins to change as she experiences consistency and kindness for the first time under the care of her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann.

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany during the first years of World War II. Most of the people of a small suburb of Munich, Molching, initially go along with Hitler's ideas. Some do so just to protect themselves and their families, while others really do believe his ghastly lies. As time goes on, however, and the Nazis get more and more desperate, the people are living with two sources of fear - the repression of the Nazis as their policies encroach steadily on the freedoms of all people (even those who toe the party line), and also the terror of Allied bombs falling near their village on an almost daily basis. In spite of the fears and losses, however, Liesel blossoms as a human being during this time.

In the midst of so much tragedy, Liesel experiences stability and kindness for the first time in her life. She learns what it is like to have friends, and to engage in the cherished activities of childhood like playing outdoor games and climbing trees. She has opportunities to give to others, to learn how to be a daughter and a friend. A sense of our common humanity is awakened within her when her foster parents begin hiding a refugee Jew at tremendous risk to themselves. It is as if Liesel is the microcosm of the changes that take place within the whole village as they begin to unify. They find subtle ways to resist the Nazis, and more overt ways to support and care for one another. Woven throughout all of this is the role of books in change and relationship. For example, Liesel begins reading out loud to her neighbors when they are confined in the air raid shelters. The reading calms the fears of the people and also draws them together as they wonder "what will happen next."

There are so many instances in The Book Thief of reconciliation, self-sacrifice, and truth-telling. It's a wonderful, hopeful story that shows us there is always evidence around us of God's presence and God's mercy, if we only know how to look for it.

However, be warned. The book ends with a whole lot of tragedy and a little bit of hope mixed in. The narrator warns us throughout the narrative that bad things are coming, so it's no surprise, but it still is hard to cope with because by the end we are so attached to the characters. You will miss them when they're gone.

Reverent Reader


At 10/14/08, 3:32 PM , Anonymous Pam said...

This was a very powerful book. Our book club read it in the spring. I think it should be every bit a classic like The Diary of Anne Frank. When I went to buy it, it was in the teen section at Barnes & Noble. I wonder how American teens react to this. Tough book, beautifully written, and so worth the read!


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