Don’t let anyone tell you that Young Adult fiction is not where it’s at.
YA books encapsulate the depth of the human spirit and shine it back to us. Like children who see the truth and aren’t yet confined by the taboos of society, YA books speak of universal truths, distilled loves, and innocent eyes. YA books are what life should be: innocence, fearlessness, and unadulterated truth (pun intended). What better place in which to illustrate this by situating a YA story in WWII Germany?
Zusak has done what every writer dreams: he’s performed his heart’s task. As a writer, I want to not just communicate, but to make an impact. If I can move a reader to action, whether that action is crying, laughing, thinking, or picking up the phone, I have done my job. I want my heart to speak to yours. Zusak has done that many times over.
Books are meant to be savoured. Often they take years to conceive, then to write. Within a few pages, I knew I wanted to savour “The Book Thief.” It wasn’t the story, it wasn’t the narrator, it wasn’t the characters, though all are brilliant. It was the words. Markus Zusak is the Word Shaker he labels his protagonist. Many times I found myself pausing, rolling a sentence or phrase aloud over my tongue, smiling as that particular combination of words rang in my head like a musical passage played with the utter joy of just playing. You can hear the joy in Zusak’s wordsmithing. And, as the protagonist and several other characters discover, words have potency. Zusak’s words are economical, efficient, and incredibly potent, by choice and by context.
“I am haunted by humans.” I could adopt this as The Reluctant Archaeologist’s mantra. As is the narrator, I, too, am marveled by our beauty, by the divinity we seem able to provoke and express, but shamed by the terror we can elicit with a glance. I dig to find the beauty, then often discover the opposite. I am baffled by our capacity to house both extremes within our collective consciousness, whether we are aware or not. Humans both haunt and exhaust me.
This is not “The Diary of Anne Frank.” It is a humanistic look at a girl in Germany during the Second World War and how her life is lived during that time. That is the plain and simple. Does the war make her extraordinary? No. It allows her to discover who she already is, her friends and family who they already are. It is a look at the humanity that lived on, in Germany, during WWII: kids rode bikes and stole cookies, papa played the accordion, mama did the laundry and made soup, kids grow up too quickly. Liesel, Rudy, Hans, Rosa, and the others are exceptionally human thanks to the exceptionally inhuman narrator and war. The novel is a study in contrasts and the blurring of white and black into grey.
Buy it. Savour it. Take a few weeks or a couple months to read it. Let it seep into your soul. I love movies, but leave off this one for a while. Let Zusak’s Word Shaker shake you.