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The Pajiba Book Club Discussion

By mswas | Books | July 30, 2010 |

By mswas | Books | July 30, 2010 |

The Book Thief takes place in a small town in Germany during WWII. The novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young foster girl. She and her brother were to have been placed together, but her younger brother unfortunately dies before they get to their destination. This is the first time Death meets up with Liesel, the book thief. Death will see Liesel twice more.

As readers, however, we encounter Death quite a lot more than Liesel, because Death is the book’s narrator. I didn’t mention that in my preview of the novel, because I wanted readers to find out for themselves if they didn’t already know. What did you think of Death as a narrator? Often, he (can we assume Death is male?) tells us exactly what is going to happen in the pages to follow. Are those events made any less because we know what is going to happen?

This depiction of Death as a weary, cynical being is a lot different from the malicious Grim Reaper we often see. This Death isn’t evil and doesn’t cause the end of life. He’s merely a witness and at the moment of dying, a recipient of the person’s soul. Did hearing Death’s voice so frequently give any new meaning death?

“You want to know what I truly look like?

I’ll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue.” —Death

Upon my fervent recommendation of this book, my cousin said that she intended to get the audio book version. I dissuaded her, telling her that the illustrations added so much that I thought she would be missing a huge piece of the novel. They’re simple, even crude sometimes, but they convey a lot. What did you think about the illustrations? Do you think I was right to tell her not to get the book on CD?

The characters in The Book Thief , however, are incredibly well drawn — take Rosa for example. When I encountered her, I thought — based on her language — that Liesel would wind up being abused and hurt by this foster family. But we do eventually see that Rosa’s temper and profanity are defense mechanisms that she uses to cope with all life is serving up to her. What were your initial impressions of Rosa and did that change as the book went on? What about Hans?

Max, though hidden away from most of the other characters in the novel by virtue of being a fugitive Jew hidden in the basement, reveals the most about himself through his stories. Armed with a key hidden in Mein Kampf, Max makes his way to the Hubermann’s and calls in a favor of Hans. His commonalities with Liesel form a deep friendship, but hiding him becomes a terrible burden for the family. But there’s never any doubt that they would hide him as long as they could, even if he’s on death’s door. Or if Death is at Max’s door.

“I realized much later that I actually visited 33 Himmel Street in that period of time…I knelt. I readied myself to insert my hands through the blankets. Then there was a resurgence—an immense struggle against my weight. I withdrew, and with so much work ahead of me, it was nice to be fought off in that little dark room” —Death

I also can’t talk about this book without discussing Rudy - a boy who loves Liesel almost from the moment he first hits her in the face with a snowball, but still manages to become her closest friend. Rudy is an impetuous boy who’s known around town for having donned blackface and run around the school track to emulate Jesse Owens.

“He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world

She was the book thief without the words.”

Rudy and Liesel roam through the town and through their adventures, we meet the other citizens of the town. We meet the woman who will provide Liesel with other books to steal, Ilsa Hermann - the mayor’s wife. Frau Holtzapfel is the neighbor with whom Rosa has feuded for many years. Hans Junior is Rosa and Hans’ son who has been indoctrinated by the Nazis and thinks his father is a coward for not following suit. Viktor Chemmel becomes the leader of a group of thieves that Rudy and Liesel encounter.

I must note one more thing about this novel, the language. It is so exquisitely precise. Every harsh and sweet and beautiful word pierces and takes my breath away. There are so many perfect phrases, describing the most terrible things — loss, death, loneliness and fear - and then the same creativity turns its eye to love and hope. It’s just wonderful.

“I have hated the words, and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.” — Liesel

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.