Saint John Don Bosco:

"Never read books you aren't sure about . . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?"




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Monday, February 23, 2009

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Do you have that book from childhood that made the Holocaust real to you? I've got snippets from Anne Frank seared in my brain that made Schindler's List redundant in terms of bringing the reality of the horror home. I can vividly recall the everdayness of Anne's plucking hair out of the sink after one of her fellow victim's-in-hiding left it there that just made her real to me, and then I felt the sorrow of her death. She was no longer a statistic.

I don't remember the whole story of Summer of My German Soldier, but I've never forgotten the desperation of the war victims who ate horse meat and felt sick to their stomachs while glad they had something to eat. No one has ever had to convince me of the wisdom of the Church in her strict guidelines for Just War after that. You don't welcome war once you see it through the eyes of those who live it.

The Book Thief is a perfect modern addition to this collection. This is a character you will never forget. She is real; she is us. This author writes in a lyrical style that you will either love, tolerate, or not endure. But if it one of the first two, you will be hooked and not be able to forget the spunky little girl who loves books, lives through horrible times, loses, forges relationships, and endures.

Cautions: Written from the Point-of-View of Death and with quite a lyrical quality about it, this book can be a bit difficult for some tweens to comprehend. I found the narrator to be not so much macabre as accurate. Know that you will encounter a lot of death. Characters you love die and not in ideal ways. There are swear words, and 4 uses of the Lord's name in vain (a particular sensitivity of mine). But there is nothing gratuitous about any of it. It is quite in keeping with the tragedy of war. While realistic, it is not gory. Life shines through even when loss is prevalant. Death is not triumphant but practical.

There is a heavy war/death theme. The narrator mentions Liesel is 13, flat-chested, "hasn't bled yet, and the young man from the basement (the Jew they were hiding) was now in her bed." The man was there only because he was sick. This description isn't out-of-keeping with way this author narrates. It is meant to strike a jarring note, even though it doesn't turn out to be lewd.

One book that Leisel reads has a short but descriptive reference to someone being knifed because the book is about a murderer... a bit much information.

The power of this story lies in the characters. The author focuses on painting a powerful picture of the juxtaposition of the mix of ugliness and beauty; horror and hope; brokenness and survival; and the love and hate that comingle in the human heart. One time that the author specifically brushes close to a personal theology is when the narrator, Death, talks about the silence of God in the midst of horror and war. This stunning story necessitates that a thinking person grapple with this problem of evil. While I acknowledge God's voice can seem silent at times, I wouldn't leave the topic there. The problem of evil is quite important to discuss with your tween, especially after reading a novel like this.

In imitation of Zusak’s own writing style, let me illustrate his three brief and only glimpses of Catholicism:

***Three Images of Catholics***
*reference to a tired caricature:
the sadistic nun
*those damned people who say bad stuff
about suicide
*a priest in a book who doubts his faith
upon meeting an attractive woman

I find it desperately ironic that a man who poetically writes about the power of words and how Hitler wielded them against the Jews, leaves only these stained images of Catholicism lingering in the aftermath of the story.

See: Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Suicide: as contrary to love of God and self: 2281
Factors that can diminish responsibility: 2282
Eternal salvation: 2283

Providence and the Scandal of Evil: 309; 306; 307; 308

SAFETY RATING: 2 Flags

Historical Fiction; World War II

4 comments:

Anonymous,  September 12, 2009 at 7:39 PM  

What is the flag rating on this?

Tween Lit Crit September 12, 2009 at 10:22 PM  

hmmm... I think I skipped the flag rating because I wrote the review months after reading the book (I hadn't started the blog yet). Usually, I write a review right after a careful reading.
So, that reminds me that I need to go back and re-read this one to finish my flag rating. I got too busy with other books!
I don't remember anything objectionable, other than the obvious fact that the holocaust is a serious and depressing topic.
I'll get a rating up here. I'll need a week, though. I think my 14 yr old would like to re-read it herself!

Anonymous,  November 23, 2009 at 11:40 AM  

This blog is exactly what I've been looking for! Thank you so much for sharing with us!
Have you gotten around to rating this book?

Tween Lit Crit November 23, 2009 at 1:22 PM  

Thanks for the encouragement and the nudge! I'm 1/3 of the way re-reading this, and I should get the rating/critique up within a week. Though you must realize that I just may have tempted fate (if I believed in that), and now many unexpected things may pop up and steal my reading time. But don't worry, Anonymous, if I suddenly contract the swine flu, I won't blame you... ;)

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