I finished The Book Thief on the first full day of my vacation this past Friday. It was a new and exciting experience for me: my first time “off the grid” in almost two years. Of course, I’ve been away from the Internet before, I’m not a millennial, for heavens sake, but not since I’ve acquired Internet Responsibilities. I have two of these: This blog, and also My Fitness Pal. I was able to track food on my iPhone app but couldn’t upload and I was limited to selecting foods I’ve entered into my calorie counter before. So I had to guesstimate calories more than I’ve had to do since I started tracking almost two years ago. This was actually much less of a big deal than I was worried about. But as a brief aside, it’s hard to not be eating constantly when you’re sitting around a campsite filled with all of your favorite snack foods and with a huge group of people who have delicious dinner potlucks for every night…. I managed to limit myself to one s’more per evening and also forced myself to eat vegetables with (almost) every meal. Corn on the cob is a vegetable, right? I felt really bad about missing two of my assigned posting days but it appears based on our page views that Bethany did just fine without me. I did bring a notebook in which to record my thoughts about the books I was reading, should any occur to me, but I kept forgetting it in the tent.
Historically, I’ve quietly raged against lack of Internet access, checking my phone for signal periodically, and refusing to turn it off just in case a cloud floats by and bounces a satellite cell signal down on me. This time, I tried not worrying about it. The Internet would get along just fine without me for a few days. So, when we hit Guerneville and lost cell service I put my phone on airplane mode and just used it to take pictures and to play an occasional game of Bookworm when I needed a break from the book I’m currently reading (more on that weirdness in a few days) and to track my food, of course. It was nice. The only annoying thing was when we were getting into the town we were staying in just on the Mendocino side of the Sonoma-Mendocino county line we couldn’t figure out where we needed to go because the email with directions to the campsite wasn’t in my email inbox anymore and I couldn’t download it. Because the Northern California Coast doesn’t believe in the Internet. We had to stop and ask a stranger where to go. It was awful. Also, we were meeting my parents. A few years ago I would have thought to tell them before they left the day before us that we were planning to do some wine tasting on our way out, but because I’m so used to being in constant contact with them these days that I didn’t think to do it, and my mom apparently spent the better part of the afternoon on Thursday riding my/her bike up to the entrance to the camp ground looking for us because she thought we might be dead on the road somewhere. My mom worries. The point of this long digression was to say that we had a nice, relaxing time, and I fully intend to try and go off grid at least once a year. It was surprisingly painless.
And now I’ll finish telling you about The Book Thief. When last I updated, relatively little had happened to Liesel and her foster parents and her neighbors on Himmel Street. The second half of the novel, or maybe even the last hundred and fifty or so pages, are quite wonderful in a gut-wrenching, melodramatic, intended to make teenage girls cry sort of way. This is not necessarily a criticism. I mean, it is. But I also enjoyed the second half of the book much, much more than the first half. I think that I can relate to teenage characters and their inner workings much better than I can to kids. The mind of a teenage girl is a complex and convoluted place, full of the highest highs and the lowest lows. I have no desire to be a teenage girl ever again, but it’s interesting to get into the head of one every once in a while. I actually think Zusak does a pretty good job of capturing this tumultuous place. When I read about teenage girls I almost always think of a line from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides after one of the Lisbon sisters tries to commit suicide and fails. She ends up in the hospital and the old man doctor who cares for her says something along the lines of, “You aren’t old enough to know how bad life can get,” to which the girl replies, “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen year old girl.” This may be the truest statement ever written in literature.
The good things in Liesel’s life devolve quickly as the book reaches its climax. Hans Hubermann, her papa, is finally accepted into the Nazi party and is quickly sent to war as part of the LSE, or Luftwaffe Sondereinheit, or Air Raid Special Unit. This unit’s job was to stay aboveground during air raids and put out fires, and rescue anyone who had been trapped during the raid. They were colloquially known as the Dead Body Collectors. Hans is chosen for this job because he makes the Nazis angry one day while they are parading Jews on the way to Dachau, one of the major concentration camps of the time. He gives a piece of bread to an old man who kept falling behind. “Every time he caught up sufficiently to the back of the line, he would soon lose momentum and stumble again to the ground. There were more behind him—a good truck’s worth—and they threatened to overtake and trample him…. He was dead. The man was dead. Just give him five more minutes and he would surely fall into the German gutter and die. They would all let him, and they would all watch. Then, one human. Hans Hubermann (394).” Hans gets whipped badly by a soldier while Liesel looks on. Because of this incident, Max leaves the shelter of the Hubermann basement, leaving a note saying they have done enough to help him. Liesel loses yet another parent, yet another brother. There is more to it, of course, but I’m not going to spoil it all. Death interjects some thoughts on war and human nature which I found both important and also distracting. There is so much in this book that’s both important and superfluous. Maybe that’s because it’s young adult fiction. This may be the first novel a lot of young people read about the Holocaust, the first time they put faces to the tragedies of World War II.
The beauty of The Book Thief to me is that it puts a face on a time and place in history that I’ve never put a face to. I mean, I’ve read a lot of books and things about England in WWII, and France in WWII, and the Jews in WWII, but not regular German folks in WWII. I have always thought they were all Nazis who proudly marched for Hitler. To truly believe that is childish nonsense, but no one has ever given me the opportunity to see the people who were beneath the bombs the Allied forces dropped on Germany. Granted, they are fictional people, but that’s beside the point. No one before Markus Zusak. I will always remember him for that. This book is not perfect, but it has plenty to recommend it. Possibly it would have been stronger if we had spent less time with Liesel as a small girl and more with her as an adolescent, but maybe we need to see her as a child and watch her bonds to Rosa and Hans and Rudy and Max form so all that comes later has more meaning to the reader.
Oh, and one more thing. There is a final example of Max’s drawings for Liesel, a story called “The Word Shaker.” It is so sweet and sad that I wish I had never said anything bad about the drawings in my earlier post.