I am slightly less annoyed with this book than I was the last time I wrote about it (which was here). It is possible at times to forget that “Death” is telling the story, although I still snorted whenever I was reminded, and Liesel and her circle of friends and acquaintances are relatively compelling. This novel begins with Liesel on a train with her mother and brother. They are on their way to the town of Molching, where Liesel and her brother will be left with foster parents and their mother will be taken away by authorities. Much later, Liesel puts the pieces of her memory back together and deduces that her parents were executed for being Communists. At the time, though, Liesel was baffled by the experience of being taken to live with strangers, especially after her brother dies alongside the train while they are still en route.
Liesel’s foster parents – Hans and Rosa Hubermann – are basically Joe and Mrs. Joe from Great Expectations – or at least that’s how they seem at first. Rosa is known for calling everyone in town, especially her immediate family, by a series of swear words, and Hans comes off as childlike and long-suffering and not too smart. Like Joe, Hans always takes Liesel’s side and helps her navigate the dangerous experience of living with Rosa. We learn later, though, that there is more to Rosa and Hans than we know early on. They are definitely round characters, while Joe and Mrs. Joe are flat.
The reality is that Hans and Rosa are heroes. Rosa feeds her family on nearly nothing, even after she loses all her customers and can no longer work as a laundress. When through a long sequence of events Hans and Rosa are asked to shelter Max, the son of a Jewish soldier who saved Hans’ life back in World War I, they take Max into their home in spite of the danger of hiding a Jew, and they feed him and care for him in spite of their poverty. Over time, they really do become a mother and father to Liesel as well, modeling strength and sacrifice and honor.
Everything I’ve said above is dancing uncomfortably close to one of my least favorite things: Books With Morals. I hate books that try to tell me what to admire and value or how to live my life – even though it’s also true that when I do want some advice about how to live my life I do often turn to books: to The Grapes of Wrath, to East of Eden, to Macbeth, to Thoreau and Robert Frost and Franny and Zooey.
OK, fine. I was kidding about the Macbeth part. Happy now?
I am always intrigued by the kind of dramatic irony that emerges when a reader knows things that the characters in a novel do not, not because of anything the author has said but because history has made the character’s trajectory common knowledge. We don’t know until the end, of course, which characters will live happily after the war and which will not, though the fact that this novel is usually sold from the Young Adult shelves suggests, correctly, that its good guys will either survive the war or die nobly. There wasn’t a lot of suspense in this novel in this sense. Liesel, the Hubermanns, Max, and Liesel’s friend Rudy are never anything but good. They never seem tempted to be anything but good. In Rosa’s case, her goodness is often hidden under her nasty behavior, but it is always there. The fact that very little fundamental change takes place in any of the characters bored me a bit. OK, it bored me a lot.
Another thing that annoys me about this book is the whole motif of stealing books. Since it’s in the book’s title, Zusak clearly means book stealing to be essential to the book’s identity, but it always felt tacked on and artificial to me. Liesel started stealing books at the moment when her brother died on the journey to Molching. One of the officials who took away his body left behind a book called The Grave Digger’s Handbook (am I truly expected to think this is a real book that an SS officer might have carried around with him? I kept thinking of the Joyce Carol Oates novel The Gravedigger’s Daughter, and I wanted to go back in time and whisper in Liesel’s ear, “Leave that book alone, kid. It’s not worth the trouble of carrying it home. WAY too many comma splices.”) At this point in the novel, Liesel is illiterate. When she begins having chronic nightmares at the Hubermanns’ home, Hans visits her each night in her room when she wakes up, and slowly they read through The Grave Digger’s Handbook together. Eventually Hans teaches her to read, and as time passes she acquires more books – mostly via thievery, although she receives some books as gifts too – and she and Hans read those together as well. I suppose this is one hint that Hans is more than just another simple-minded Joe Gargery; in Great Expectations, it is Pip who teaches Joe to read. Later, when Max is in hiding in the Hubermanns’ basement, Liesel reads to and with Max also, and he writes two books for her by slowly and methodically disassembling a copy of Mein Kampf, whitewashing each page and letting the pages dry, and then writing his own story on the pages. Like most whitewashing jobs (of both the literal and figurative varieties), these pages still bear the shadowy presence of the original words of the book. These palimpsests appear in the novel and are a nice touch. Nevertheless, there is no reason that Liesel has to steal books in order for this novel to work. I know what Zusak is going for – stealing books is Liesel’s secret way of defying a government determined to burn books, and that’s fine. I approve of defying Nazis. I also know that what matters in this book is the fact that literacy is ultimately what saves Liesel, and books are tangible symbols of that literacy. All of this aside, though, this book does not require Liesel to steal books in order to succeed, and I would prefer that this tacked-on moralistic trope had not made it into the novel’s final draft.
This book certainly does have strengths. It’s about survival and love and hope, and all of the key characters are well drawn. “Death” never quite stopped making me snort, though I do know why Zusak chose this strategy of narration. In a world where the truth, beauty, and information are guarded zealously by Nazis and individual freedoms are hunted down and bludgeoned, using “Death” as the novel’s narrator gives Zusak a handy way to provide the reader with information that the characters in the book could never know. I also think that “Death” works as a narrator because only an immortal creature with a long familiarity with human suffering can keep an even keel in the midst of such a violent period in history. “Death” is actually remarkably compassionate and does not enjoy the job of collecting the souls of the dead, but he does understand this job, and he’s good at it. He can speak matter-of-factly about terrible things as someone like Liesel could not.
I didn’t love this book, but I did start to feel more of a connection with its characters as time went on. It’s OK. It may be the most OK book I have ever read.