Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Words: Meaning and Escape

The Book Thief is a best-selling novel by Markus Zusak that involves many of the same themes as the book that was the subject of our last blog entry, An Interrupted Life, the Journal of Etty Hillesum. Reading and writing provide the vehicles for a young girl to impart more meaning --- and more pleasure --- into her life, as she grows up in the midst of the terrors of Nazi Germany.

The Book Thief is simultaneously beautiful, horrifying, and entertaining: a disturbing combination. As the many people who have read the book know, the narrator of The Book Thief is Death, and its plot centers around a young girl, Liesel Meminger, telling the story of her growing up near Munich during World War II. Although not Jewish, Liesel is still a victim of Nazism. Death and loss surround her: Her father has died, her brother dies after her mother goes to the concentration camp at Dachau, and Liesel is sent to live with a foster family. A refugee Jewish man comes to live in the basement of the foster family. He and Liesel become close, but he is ultimately forced to flee. The poverty in which Liesel and her friends and family live intensifies, as does the repression of Nazism and the frequency of the bombing in her neighborhood.

In the midst of tragedy, Liesel finds solace in reading -- reading whatever she can find. Ultimately, she provides this same solace to others through reading out loud in a shelter while bombs fall around them. Reading is an art that comforts, for as Liesel reads, “she could feel their frightened eyes hanging on to her as she hauled the words in and breathed them out. A voice played the notes inside her. This, it said, is your accordion” (381). Words have a contradictory power, however, for as Liesel later reflects, words can create and extend the power of evil, for “[w]ithout words, the F├╝hrer would not exist” (521).

Ultimately, Liesel writes the story of her life in her journal, and doing so saves her life, literally. Like the Journal of Etty Hillesum, her reading and writing provide her a means to affirm life. Certainly, as Sanchez-Eppler argues and we discuss below, they give her a “source of power, self-validation, and even play.”

Perhaps most fascinating about The Book Thief is its popularity. It is dark and disturbing, using ironic humor even in treating the most serious subjects. Unlike many children’s books, it describes complex paradoxes and moral uncertainties and does not fully resolve them. But like so many children’s books, it is itself about reading and writing, and the power of words -- and I suspect this is one reason it has so many passionate fans.

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