Book Club: The Book Thief

Now that I’ve wiped the tears from my eyes, I can finally put together a post on this beautiful book: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

For those of you new to the Book Club, we discuss best-selling novels from a writer’s perspective to see what makes them tick. As in the last Book Club discussion, I’ll pose some questions under the following headings:

The Author

markus-zusak-the-book-thiefAustralian Markus Zusak was born in 1976, the child of German parents. He authored four other novels before The Book Thief – all of them classified as ‘young adult’ – The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Getting the Girl, and I Am the Messenger, recipient of a 2006 Printz Honor for excellence in young adult literature.

Zusak wrote The Book Thief in response to a series of stories his mother told him of growing up in Munich during the Second World War, including that of a teenage boy giving a piece of bread to a marching Jew. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald he said: “We have these images of the straight-marching lines of boys and the ‘Heil Hitlers’ and this idea that everyone in Germany was in it together. But there still were rebellious children and people who didn’t follow the rules and people who hid Jews and other people in their houses. So there’s another side to Nazi Germany.”

As I grew up as a white teenager in South Africa during the Apartheid years, I understand why he might need to ‘set the record straight’. Of course, the book is about so much more than that; you can read more in Zusak’s own words:

For discussion:
When an author is motivated by a need to ‘set the record straight’ what might the dangers be? Do you see any of this in The Book Thief?

Genre

The Book Thief is classified as a Young Adult novel but its phenomenal international success is due to it ‘crossing over’ into the adult market – more of that later in ‘market success’. For now, let’s limit ourselves to discussing the book as a young adult historical. Like most books in this genre the historical landscape is the backdrop of a coming-of-age story. The trials and tribulations of being a young person in a hostile world are the primary concern of YAs. Despite the extra-ordinary circumstances that the young protagonists endure, the ordinary spheres of home, neighbourhood and school are the source of most of the conflict in this book.

For discussion:
How might this primary function of a YA novel affect the plotting and character choices of an author? What pros and cons do you see in The Book Thief? How does the historical landscape affect the ‘coming of age’ plotline? Consider the age of Liesel (10 – 14); what impact might this have on plot choices?

Characterisation

Zusak provides us with a colourful cast of characters, carefully chosen to present a cross-section of Germany during the period. We see Jews, Nazis, rich, poor, soldiers, civilians, young and old. Liesel, of course, is the lynch-pin of the story and all of the characters impact upon her in some way. By choosing to have her introduced to Himmel Street as an outsider, we get to know the people in her life as she meets them. I don’t think the same thing could have been achieved as easily if we had her born and growing up there. Also, of course, by setting her up as a wounded outsider, welcomed by the people of Himmel Street, Zusak allows her to be a kindred spirit to the desperate Max. It also allows us to see her foster parents as people who will ‘do the right thing’ despite the requisite sacrifice.

Although the female characters are memorable (Rosa, Mrs Holtzapfel, the mayor’s wife) it is the male characters we are most drawn to – Hans, Max and Rudy. A trite explanation would be that Zusak is a man and so has more sympathy with them; but I’d like to think it’s more than that. Zusak is a father and if the warmth with which he sketches Liesel’s relationship with Max and Hans is anything to go by, he’s a good one. Speaking of Max, I found that relationship at times uncomfortable to read. At 24, he was a young man spending sometimes whole nights alone with a young teenage girl. Perhaps it’s a sad indictment of the world we’re in, where every man is viewed as a potential paedophile, but I couldn’t help wondering about the appropriateness of it. However, I applaud Zusak for not backing away from it.

Let us not forget our charming narrator: Death. Just like everyone else in The Book Thief at times, he is presented against type. When I first picked up the book I feared it would be like Terry Pratchett’s ‘Mort’, with Death’s apprentice as the narrator, but I knew that I was with a complex and benevolent being when I read: ‘It’s the leftover humans. The survivors. They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions, I still fail.’ (The Book Thief, p15).

For discussion:
Which characters in The Book Thief represent ‘type’? Consider which of them Zusak has chosen to subvert. In other words, how are our preconceptions challenged through his characterisation? And yet others are simple cardboard cut-outs. Which ones? Why?

Plot and structure

Towards the end of the book Death tells us that he has a ‘circular heartbeat’ and is cursed to be beyond time. That explains his character’s need to tell us the end before we’ve reached it. But why does Zusak do it? This book starts with a series of visions of what’s going to happen to Liesel. We know the end before the book’s barely begun – we know who’s going to die and who’s going to live. Each chapter and section is also prefaced with a summary of the main points, like the cue cards in a silent movie. The tension in most books is achieved when the reader wonders what’s going to happen. Apart from a few instances (Zusak keeps us hanging on about Max’s fate until almost the very end) this does not happen in The Book Thief. And yet it is still a tension-ridden book.

For discussion:
How does Zusak establish the rise and fall of tension despite his narrator having a compulsive need to tell us what happens in the end? What are the strengths of this approach? What are the dangers? What does the choice of Death as narrator contribute to the book?

Style

In a book narrated by Death I was surprised at all the colour. Zusak uses the pages of this book to paint a picture in every possible colour. Similes and metaphors are communicated in colour and emotions too. I wonder if he is synaesthetic. It is the poetic language of The Book Thief that lifts it from the populist to the literary (sorry for sounding like a snob!). Quite frankly, it is beautifully written.

This is a post-modern book – not in telling, but in style. The story is conventional, but the author’s recurring references to books, the nature of books and the power that words have to enslave or set us free, repeatedly brings attention to the nature of reading and writing and that the story we are involved in is a literary construct. The delightful hand-written books and sketches, the references to the dictionary definition of words, the stolen books from the library, the development of Liesel from illiteracy to literacy which parallels her emotional, social and moral growth, all reflect a post-modern sensibility. And of course, the story that is being told to us came to Death through a hand-written book in fading pencil – even as we read the story is disappearing and will only live on to the extent that we allow it to in our hearts.

For discussion:
The use of overly poetic language in a novel may at times undermine the forward momentum of the plot. Is this the case in The Book Thief? How does Zusak balance the poetic with the prosaic elements of style? While the post-modern compulsion to draw attention to itself is clearly present in The Book Thief, do you feel it becomes a distraction from the story? Why or why not?

Market success

As we’ve already mentioned, The Book Thief is an international best-seller. I believe this is largely because it has managed to capture that elusive ‘crossover’ market that the likes of Pullman, Rowling and Almond have claimed as their own. Or have they? I’ve met David Almond and he would be the last person in the world to consciously write with an eye on the crossover market. Almond says he just writes stories – Skellig, his first children’s novel, just came out that way. He did not intend to write a children’s book. Simon Morden, another author I know, was rather surprised when his The Lost Art was bought by children’s publisher, David Fickling. It’s quite a violent book without a teen protagonist and I would have pitched it for an older readership.

So why do publishers try to push books into this market? Frankly, because thanks to the likes of Pullman and Rowling it’s the fastest growing readership demographic. That being said, I think that The Book Thief fits well into this market. It has a young protagonist with a coming-of-age plot. The question is, what has pushed it into the ‘crossover’ market. What is in this book that gives it universal appeal and attracts adults too? I’ll leave that to you to answer.

For discussion:
How has The Book Thief achieved crossover appeal?

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jed-rubenfeld-the-interpretation-of-murderPlease feel free to enter into this discussion by leaving comments below (which is after all the main purpose of a book club).

The next Book Club title, which we will look at in two month’s time, is The Interpretation of Murder by American author, Jed Rubenfeld. Remember, if you buy it through The Crafty Writer Bookshop we will receive a small commission that will help to keep the Book Club and all the information on this site free to users. If you can’t afford to buy it, support your local library, we won’t hold it against you!

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  4. Book Club: The Interpretation of Murder
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19 comments on “Book Club: The Book Thief

  1. Julie Compton on said:

    Fiona,
    Wow, what a choice! I could go on and on about this book if I had time. I read it about a month ago and my own book club has chosen it for this month’s book, too. It’s simply an amazing novel, and I can’t believe how young the author is. What an accomplishment, to say the least.
    I’d like to discuss the “crossover appeal” you mention. A friend from England was visiting, and she had just finished reading the book on the plane over and, as she so often does, she passed it along for me to read. Coincidentally, the same day, my husband brought the book home from work (he’s in children’s publishing). He mentioned how it was being marketed to young adults, and my UK friend was surprised, because she’d been under the impression it was a book for adults. She felt the book might be too dark for young adults. Well, suffice it to say, my 13 year old read it and loved it. She sucked it up in about two days. But she’s a fairly sophisticated 13, and I suppose I can imagine some who might find it too disturbing.
    I think one of the reasons this books appeals to both teens and adults is because despite Liesel’s age, and the fact that much of the story is told through her eyes and in a child-like way, the issues she faces are “adult” issues (sadly) and the author does such a wonderful job of creating full characters (for both the children and the adults) with incredible depth. Because I’m a parent, as I read I found myself thinking about how her adopted father dealt with things and questioning how I would react in the same situation. I’d guess that teen readers probably engage in that same analysis, but from Liesel’s point of view.

  2. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Your 13-year-old obviously has excellent taste! Was there anything she didn’t understand? Of perhaps she wouldn’t admit it if there were.

  3. Sue on said:

    Hi Fiona,

    I’m sorry to hear you had been ill.
    I wondered what had happened to the bookclub and thought that perhaps you hadn’t had enough response to justify the work involved.

    I already have the book but haven’t read it yet. I will start reading it tonight.

    Sue B

  4. Julie Compton on said:

    No, I think she understood. She’s pretty savvy, and she reads at a very high level. Generally, she’ll ask me about things if there’s something she doesn’t understand.

  5. Dave McColl on said:

    When an author is motivated by a need to ’set the record straight’ what might the dangers be? Do you see any of this in The Book Thief?

    I think there is a danger of giving a single viewpoint. Aren’t there pressures to keep to the politically correct viewpoint. Is this present in The Book Thief? Well, who many saw a book set in Nazi Germany and thought they knew what one of the storylines or themes many be? Nonetheless, this unusual book was excellent and I enjoyed it.

    Dave

  6. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Dave,

    Interestingly, I heard a news bulletin yesterday that it’s the 75th anniversary of the book burnings in Germany yesterday. Reminded me of that scene in The Book Thief. Check it out, there’s ‘live footage’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/7393606.stm

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  8. Karen Hall on said:

    I came across the book reviews by chance after looking elsewhere on your blog but was attracted by The Book Thief. I read this about a year ago when I was working at Borders and it left a huge impression on me. The next book I read seemed like total tripe in comparison (but then again it was the Da Vinci Code!). Book Thief I liked so much that when Borders were selling it at half price I bought 2 so that I had one copy for myself and one to loan to people.

  9. Fiona on said:

    Hi Karen, glad you could join us. Poor you having to read Da Vinci Code after that!!!!!!! I hope you can join us on the next book club – The Interpretation of Murder.

  10. Sue B on said:

    Hi Fiona despite the many people who love this book I have found it a bit of a struggle. It is not really my cup of tea.

    Some bits were really enjoyable and I found myself racing along only to be pulled up by the intrusive and unbelievable comments of the character Death. I found the character Death especially annoying when he casually gave bits of the future plot away.

    It did tackle an interesting subject as I have to confess I was previously unaware of the book burnings.

  11. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Sue, good to hear from someone who didn’t like it! Yes, having Death flash forward all the time and spoil the end was a big gamble for the author. With you, it obviously didn’t pay off. The next book, An Interpretation of Murder, keeps the end hidden until the end!

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  13. Sarah on said:

    Hi, I’m 14 and I finished this book in one day…. one full day, 24 hrs. Yeah and I had to sleep all of the next day. But anyway, I really liked it alot, though I couldn’t understand what kept the tension in the book even though the ending was given away. And I thought Death was pretty cool. His little inputs were funny and made the book even more unique. The only bummer is that I have to do a 120 page analysis on it and finish by the end of this month.

  14. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Sarah, good to hear from an ‘intended reader!’. And well done on reading it in 24 hours. Now you’ve got time to go back and work through it more carefully. Good luck with the analysis. I don’t remember having to write 120 page anythings when I was 14. Poor you.

    The tension in the book, I believe, was retained because of us wondering how the inevitable was going to be achieved. In a crime novel this would be the ‘how dunnit’ rather than the ‘who dunnit’. This is where we’re going to end up, announces Zusak, but I’m still going to surprise you on the journey. And of course there was the Max sub-plot.

  15. Kimbely on said:

    At the beginning of the month, I had the assignment of choosing the next read for the book club I belong too. No easy task, I assure you, as the members of my club read so much more than I do and have previously read and discussed most books that I could come up with…enter the Book Thief. My 15 year old son has been trying to get me to read this novel for over a year now. He convinced my mother to give it a try and she loved it! The Book Thief will be the first YA book my club will read and I think they will be pleasantly surprised. Another first, The Crafty Writer. While searching the net for some interesting discussion question, I stumbled across your wonderful site. I have copied and pasted your net location and sent it to my club members. Thank you for the discussion questions.
    As I am only half way through the book – I plan to complete it today – I will only comment on one query from your board. I can say that I am disappointed each time Death gives something away. However, this style has helped build up my emotions as I read. For instance, knowing when and how Rudy will receive his kiss from Liesel makes all his attempts to obtain one much more meaningful and terribly sad instead of simply comical. I now keep wondering the regret that Liesel might feel at not having kissed him sooner, of having denied him this simple request and pleasure

  16. Kimberly on said:

    Misspelled my own name – what a terrible typo!

  17. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    LOL! I have a tendency to type Foina …

    Thanks for engaging so positively in this discussion Kimberly. I do hope your book club enjoy the book as much as I and many other people do. Yes poor, poor Rudy. It reminds us to grasp hold of life to the full lest what we love may be taken away. But it’s a hard lesson to learn for someone as young as Liesel.

    I’ve been unable to continue setting new titles for the Book Club on The Crafty Writer, as I only do this in my spare time. For the last year ‘spare’ time has been very spare indeed!

    Looking forward to meeting your other members.

    Fiona

  18. I finally got around to reading this, and enjoyed it immensely. I wasn’t really aware of it being a YA novel; it certainly doesn’t come across as a kids’ book.

    I really enjoyed the poetic language; perhaps because the narrator is Death, which allowed the author some leeway. If it had been narrated by an ordinary mortal, the language may have come across as pretentious and annoying.

    In spite of the dark backdrop, the story was told very sensitively and with compassion. For me, the book was a bit like watching a car crash: because I knew what was going to happen, I couldn’t look away in the hope that somehow the victim would survive. This, I think, is what maintained the tension, not the ‘what’, but the ‘how’, as you pointed out in an earlier comment.

    I felt quite vulnerable while reading this. The author could have chosen to make it really horrific, which would have been disturbing. However, the compassionate way he tells the story means we are left with hope at the end, in spite of everything that’s happened. Life goes on, and it’s (generally) good.

    Five stars.

  19. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Interesting point about the YA classification. Some authors consciously write for a YA audience, others that I know or have heard of, just write and the publishers do the classifying. David Almond for instance said he doesn’t write children’s books he just writes books. Philip Pullman the same.

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