The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is novel that shows the reader what many Germans (Jewish, Communist or otherwise) might have felt and experienced during World War II. Liesel, a young girl at the beginning of the novel, is the center of the story and we mainly follow her around as she attempts to navigate through a very painful and trying time. Through the use of Death as the narrator, the author gives us a window into the soul of Liesel and the other characters in the novel and makes us think about how we, as humans, might have reacted if we were a “regular” German in a time when our friends, family, and strangers were being mistreated and taken away to their deaths.
The value of humanity: this is the theme that kept going through my head as I digested this novel and its movie. It could be that my brain is more finely tuned to this line of thinking because I had also recently finished To Kill a Mockingbird (review soon-to-come), a novel that takes place during this same time but in the United States where there was also a group of people who were being devalued due to their “race”. What is it that gives us, as humans, value and what is it about us that makes us think that we can assign different levels of value to others? What makes a German less of a German because they celebrate Hanukkah or have a last name that signifies their background is other than simply German? To Kill a Mockingbird reminds me that it is not just Hitler’s Nazis who are guilty of these crimes of devaluation. And, it makes me think am I guilty of devaluing other humans?
The book also asks the question: who are we as humans? There is a scene in the book where Liesel’s papa hands some bread to a starving Jew as he is marched through their town on the way to a concentration camp. Afterwards, Papa is filled with regret as he knows that he has put the lives of his family in danger, but the response of those around him is that he had to do it because of his humanity. The conclusion that I have made is that it is because of our humanity that there is good in the world but it is also because of our humanity that there is evil in the world. And, what would I do if I were there? I don’t know. I don’t know because I’m human and I am responsible for good as well as evil. I guess more important than wondering what I would have done if I were in Germany during World War II is that I make sure that I value every human equally today, and that I am responsible for as much good as possible now that I know where evil can lead.
The movie, The Book Thief, (which is currently available on HBO GO) does a fairly decent job of explaining these issues of humanity that I previously described. While the filmmakers decided to lessen the emphasis of the narrator, the being that helps to drive home these truths of the soul, in the movie, the visuals and intensities of each scene help to make up for that loss. Certain critics have complained that the movie could have painted a more severe picture and better explained the complexities of that time, but my guess is that it had to be toned down some to allow for the movie to be more suitable for a younger audience.
The movie was expertly cast with Geoffrey Rush playing the warm, older compassionate papa, Emily Watson playing the severe mama with a hidden heart of gold, and the young, fresh but effective actress, Sophie Nélisse, who played the young girl in the film. While I agree that there were scenes that came across as much stronger in the novel, I still formed a strong connection with the main characters and was allowed to continue pondering the questions about our value and role as humans.
All in all, I liked this book more than I thought that I would. Books that come with some hype make me wary but I feel that this book, while not perfect, lived up to the hype. I would recommend the book to those whom I know enjoy historical fiction or have an interest for books about World War II, such as The Hiding Place, Number the Stars, Night, etc. I thought the novel stood out from the others because instead of being from the perspective of the persecuted, the novel focused more on those who have the potential to persecute but choose otherwise.