It’s summertime, y’all. Time to let loose and be carefree, right?
Apparently, things were a little too loose and carefree around our house, so we decided to tangle with Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. The grown-up here had read it awhile back and knew it was a deeply important story. Jack had seen The Book Thief on our bookshelf and had asked to read it repeatedly, and by July, we were looking for something a little meaty to fill up our midsummer. After the tenth request, I invoked the words of Tone-Loc and said, “let’s do it.”
After all, Liesel, the main character, is only 9 years old.
Death, however, is ageless.
Before I was able to reassess the situation, Jack had torn through 75 pages, and a mama never takes a book away from her boy. We buckled in for what I feared would be a wild ride.
Jack eats up historical fiction. Both of his great-grandfathers fought in World War II, and thankfully I had the common sense to ask them about their service while they were still alive. Those guys weren’t part of The Greatest Generation for nothing. My son sat dumbfounded, listening to the breathtakingly scary stories of the actual things his own ancestors endured. To say it was hard for him to believe is an understatement. Thank goodness we’ve never fought a battle like that on our home soil.
Similarly, Jack had heard of Anne Frank–perhaps the most recognized child of the era–and while he acknowledged her plight was absolutely horrific, he’d never read her diary or been presented with more information than the skeletal facts of her life-or-death game of hide-and-seek in Amsterdam. To him, Anne Frank was an adventurer of the highest degree, someone who evaded a bad situation by being clever and sneaky and quiet.
The Book Thief yanked him up by the bootstraps, to say the least.
Out of the gate, we tackled the devices of personification and omniscient voice. To give Death a name, a personality, a concrete place in a novel was an entirely new concept to a 5th grader. The shock value of a narrator as macabre as Death startles grown-up readers, yet somehow the concept didn’t spook my 11-year old. Jack said Death was a reliable narrator who gave insight to a multitude of characters and explained how folks actually perceived him (it? It?). Perhaps Jack’s emotional immaturity played a role here; the older we get, the closer we come to an actual visit from this grim narrator ourselves, and as such, we tend to take less risks. Stealing books or harboring a refugee becomes a much more critical act of rebellion, and the subsequent punishments are much more dire. For an 11-year old, however, these acts are not outlandish. My big-hearted, truth-loving son did not really quibble with the notion of taking another’s unwanted property for the sake of gaining knowledge or for hiding a fugitive who was being wrongly hunted.
It became clear that this was a book one sees differently when one reads it with older (more jaded?) eyes.
It would be easy to think The Book Thief might have been a bit lofty for us to have tackled so soon. The multilayered symbolism of bread, family, faith, evil, and the strength of words were topics Jack and I talked about, but–to be honest–sailed right over his head. Trotting out one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets certainly didn’t help the situation. I shifted into total English teacher/nerd-mode, excitedly rambling on about Death not being proud, and Jack’s eyes glazed over.
Instead, he preferred to focus on the intensely riveting plot, which is probably best for his first taste of this novel. When he revisits it after he has a few more years under his belt, he’ll start to grasp the importance of “The Word Shaker” and the power, good or bad, of hiding things–be it a book, another being, or a belief. Best of all, the fact that he will eagerly come back to the words of Zusak’s novel reiterates the whole point of this beautiful, painful, necessary book: words matter. Always.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
photo credit: anythinklibraries.org
“Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.”