By Casey Wilson
Unlike Rebekah, who has fond memories of The Phantom Tollbooth from her childhood, I decided my entry for “Childhood Favorites” would be one I discovered more recently – indeed, one that didn’t come out until just a few years ago. If you ask me for the name of my favorite book, I generally have one answer handy: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
She was a girl.
In Nazi Germany.
How fitting that she was discovering the power of words.
I love stories about the stories we tell. (Related: I love songs about songs.) I especially love stories about how the right words, in the right order, have the power to save a life or destroy worlds. The Book Thief is one of those stories. Words are a lifeline to Liesel, a young girl growing up in Germany during World War II. They are precious to her, and they save her life. Which makes it all the more painful for her – and us – to see them twisted into something violent and awful by her country’s leaders. Words are precious, too, to Zusak; he crafts them meticulously, painting vivid pictures with the briefest of phrases.
“You stink,” Mama would say to Hans. “Like cigarettes and kerosene.”
Sitting in the water, she imagined the smell of it, mapped out on her papa’s clothes. More than anything, it was the smell of friendship, and she could find it on herself, too. Liesel loved that smell.
I love stories about the families we choose. The families that we aren’t born into but find anyway. The Book Thief is one of those stories. Liesel suffers great loss before she finds herself the foster child of Rosa and Hans, and it takes her time to find her place with them. But when she does, she finds friendship and love – enough to welcome a hideaway Jew into their midst, when things are already so very bad. And Max, that Jew whose very presence puts all their lives at risk, becomes part of the family, too.
Rudy bowed. “My pleasure.” He tried for a little more. “No point asking if I get a kiss for that, I guess?”
“For bringing my shoes, which you left behind?”
“Fair enough.” He held up his hands and continued speaking as they walked on, and Liesel made a concerted effort to ignore him. She only heard the last part. “Probably wouldn’t want to kiss you anyway—not if your breath’s anything like your shoes.”
“You disgust me,” she informed him, and she hoped he couldn’t see the escaped beginnings of a smile that had fallen from her mouth.
I love stories about the friends that are there, even when we don’t deserve them. The ones who see our complexities and love us anyway. The Book Thief is one of those stories, too, on all angles. Not just with Rudy and Liesel, but the entire neighborhood, a place which is full of people at the center of their own stories, riddled with tragedy and joy.
***A SMALL BUT NOTEWORTHY NOTE***
I’ve seen so many young men
over the years who think they’re
running at other young men.
They are not.
They’re running at me.
I love stories about outside observers of the human race, who can see both the beauty and the horror of our actions. The Book Thief is that kind of story. Death is our narrator, and he is so, so tired – as he would be, during the Holocaust. But when Death chooses a story to share with us, it’s not his own – it’s Liesel’s, and her story is entirely human.
I’ve always thought of The Book Thief as a Christmas book. Not because of any ties to Christmas itself, but because that’s when I read it, most often: in the dead of winter, when that peculiar combination of sadness and hope seems necessary. When I talk to people about this book, I often say that it destroys me, which it does. But the real reason that I love The Book Thief is because it is not a book based in destruction, but in promise. The promise of words, the promise of family, the promise of friendship. The promise of humanity. Even when the world is as its worst, it has people like Hans, Rosa, Max, Rudy, and Liesel to make it a little bit better. And whenever I read The Book Thief, my own world is made just that much better, too.
Casey is a PhD student who will be teaching The Book Thief in the fall in her class “Writing About the Young Adult Bestseller“.