How sad is too sad?
Whitney and I have both read The Book Thief before, but as Whitney said in her very first words to me about this book: “Cried! Cried again!” (Actually, I didn’t cry at either reading, but apparently I have no soul. Can’t I just blame dry eyes on wearing contacts? I was very, very sad…) We love this book, but it was just as sad the second time around– maybe even sadder, I think, because we know what’s coming. Of course, with historical fiction, with historical fiction involving Nazis, we all know what’s REALLY coming and what’s really going on. There’s quite a lot of dramatic tension inherent in that setting, which adds gravitas to the whole novel regardless.
One of Whitney’s favorite things about this novel is the relationships. I agree. There are two forces at work in this novel: 1. Big Things, like War, Hitler, Fate, (Death), which the characters are pretty powerless against, or feel like they are anyway; and 2. Little Things, like stealing a book, or playing the accordion, or someone else sitting in your seat (ok, that last one was more like Fate), or adopting a child (ditto). The relationships in this novel are little things, but they are the most important things. Hitler can tell you who can marry, but he can’t tell you who you can love. War can decide where you live, or if you live at all, but it can’t determine who you love, or what kind of war you carry in your heart. It can’t tell you why you’re fighting. Relationships do that– at least, in this novel they do.
I think relationships are a really productive, healthy way to talk about World War II, and Nazis, and genocide, and all that goes with that. Whitney says, “There are some really sad things in this world, how terrible people can be to each other. Do I really want someone so young [11-13 years old] to know that?” Yet children understand sadness and they understand powerlessness very well. But at what point is it ok to bring up genocide? As Whitney points out, “The sadness in this book isn’t really from the Nazis, it’s from what happens to this German family.” Viewing this horrific world even from the point of view of one family is a brilliant stroke of writing to your audience. From this point of view, the reader can see that everyone loses during war and genocide. The German people are also victims. Whether Liesl and her family helped Max or not, the same thing would have happened to them. And the shopkeeper who was a Nazi fanatic? Lost both her sons– one on the battlefield, one to suicide. So complying with the Nazis or resisting didn’t make one bit of difference. And communicating this from Death’s point of view is also quite effective: everyone dies, not just Nazis, not just Jews, but you can determine how you live, who you love. And love ends up being kind of the point of life.
It’s worth noting as well that Death, the person, isn’t vindictive, scary, cruel, or any of those ways that he’s typically depicted in Western art. He’s just tired. He’s just exhausted. But he tries not to focus too much on how tired he is, or how much work there is to do. Instead, he makes a point of focusing on the color of the sky. He tries to find the brightness in his gray world. That, too, is a lesson for anyone to learn at any age. And it is entirely age appropriate. It’s ok to tell kids that the world is a hard place to live, that life is sometimes pretty gray. They already know. But the message of hoping in spite of that is not what every kid is taught.
Whitney and I also loved how present reading is in this novel. “I did like how many people liked reading,” Whitney says, “And how reading is a comfort, which is something I connect with. Like, this is something that makes my life better.” That resonated with me as well. When I was having troubles in my (first, doomed) marriage, I haunted the bookstore. My then-husband taunted me, “You get all these books like a book is going to have the answers, like a book is going to fix us. But there’s no book for this!” He was right; I was looking for a book to cure us. (He was wrong; a book could’ve cured us– the DSM-5. And therapy.) And I think that’s kind of how Liesl feels as well. She has a hole, she wants to fill it, she steals a book. And so reading and owning (and stealing) books becomes not only a comfort, but an act of rebellion. A small thing against a Big Thing. Once again Zusak demonstrates that small things are what matters. Maybe they don’t change the Big Things, but you can live with yourself at least, and you can find a measure of comfort and happiness.
This book has been turned into a movie which has gotten sort of mixed reviews (and, frankly, the trailer makes it seem a little.. cheesy? melodramatic? ridiculous?). I haven’t seen it myself (though I would like to), but if you see it, let me know what you think. Whitney was thwarted from seeing it by traffic. Which sounds lame, except that she lives in southern California, where traffic is a Big Thing. So she did a little thing and turned around and went home and did something better than sitting in traffic and was happier.
I hope you will (re)read this book. It is so, so good.
Whitney and I haven’t decided what we’re reading next, but I’ll let you know.