Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book Thoughts: The Book Thief

The Book Thief

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second time I have read this book, and I think I enjoyed it more this time. The book is intriguing from the start, as you realize that the narrator is Death. Then, as it turns out, Death has a very dry and sarcastic sense of humor that has you chuckling without even noticing. The topic of the book centers on one girl and her adoption by another German family during the beginning of World War II. As the title hints, this young girl has the habit of stealing books (the details of why and how are best left to those who read it). In the course of the story, the life on a very poor section of the town of Molching in Germany is portrayed. The novel introduces the tragedy of WWII on many fronts, from the well-known aspect of antisemitism and the Holocaust, to the lesser known aspects of the struggles that the poor in Germany went through (simply put, there are a lot of losers when war happens, and sometimes it easy to forget about the "normal" people who may suffer as a result of their country's and its leader's decisions). While there is much sadness and death in the book, there is also a sustaining quality that comes from the many relationships. It makes one think about how humanity is capable of such horror as well as such beauty.

The book is marketed as teen fiction, and I think it does a great job of providing a glimpse of the emotional intensity that surrounds these historical events in a way that a straight facts only history book could not do. Why the history needs to be learned and understood for many reasons, I really enjoy fiction books that can present a small glimpse into the history and use a story to make it more personal, more real even, to the reader. I think it can pique interest into a subject, and as a result of the story and learning about the history due to the interest, better knowledge and dialogue of history can occur.

I read this book as part of the book club at our local library.  Upon completion of reading, we meet at the library and there is a presentation given related to the book.  The presentation that night was given by an associate professor of history at a nearby college, and discussed the rise of the Nazi party.  I've studied some of this before, but it was still amazing to note how quickly some of these things happen.  Hitler was appointed at Chancellor and two months later was essentially a dictator.  One thing that caught my attention from our presenter, due in part to the current political climate in our country, is that she made the point that one of the keys to Hitler's consolidation of power was using the government power to disband the trade unions.  I think it serves as a reminder that one of the reasons the American experiment has worked for over 200 years is that there is the infamous balance and separation of powers, and not just the separation created by the founding documents of our country, but a balance in power among so many areas.  In the context of unions, it may be well to remember that the result of proposed policies in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan, for example, would be to consolidate power in the State executive, and take it away from an organization of people.  I don't imagine and have no intention of implying any result closely relating to the fascism that overtook Germany in the 1930s, but simply posit that consolidated power rarely results in good things.

In any event, I have digressed.  I truly enjoyed this book, and I truly enjoyed listening to the lecture.  It reminded me of my favorite class in high school that combined U.S. History and Literature, where we read works of fiction from a time period while simultaneously studying the history.  Learning about slavery while also reading Huck Finn, the 1920s while enjoying The Great Gatsby, the New England colonies while trudging through The Scarlet Letter, early 20th century worker conditions while reading Sinclair's The Jungle, or the plight of blacks while perusing the poetry of Langston Hughes, all made history much more vivid and personal.  I truly think it would be better to teach history this way all the time, despite the increase reading load it would take.  But the value of viewing history as personal, and its benefits, I think would be truly significant.