Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Reading: The Book Thief

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A couple of years ago, one of my friends was telling me about how disappointed she was that many of her high school students were just not “getting into” The Book Thief.  I asked her, “Oh, what’s it about?” 

“What’s it about?!” she gawked.  “What’s it not about?”

I didn’t read The Book Thief until I was assigned to, and due to the movie playing in theatres at the current time and triple holds placed on the book at my library, I decided it would be best to buy my own copy.  I stayed up all night reading it (thank goodness for the surprise of snow and an unexpected snow day the next day), and I am here to tell what this book is about! 

This book is about the power of words.  It is about a young girl named Liesel who moved in with a foster family, the wise and sincere Hans Hubberman and strict, demanding Rosa.  It is about mischievous children in the poorest part of town plotting to steal apples.   It is about two children eagerly sharing one piece of candy.  It is about a boy that dreams to be a victor, like Jesse Owens.  It is about a fluffy-headed woman and her library and an open window.  It is about a young girl learning to read in the basement at night with her caring foster father.  But I only want to touch upon one of these “what–it’s-about” today because I think Markuz Zukar makes his point quite clear with his own writing: Words have the power to move people.

If it weren’t for Hitler’s threatening words and promises for a idyllic future, perhaps the people of Germany would not have been pushed into the Nazi party.  Perhaps cities, towns, neighborhoods, and people’s lives would not have been destroyed and scarred simply because of their beliefs.  The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is simply an adage proved false by events like the rise of Nazi Germany and the annihilation of millions of innocent Jewish families.

The Book Thief showcases what happens when one can use his/her words to reach out to others, as well as the debt that comes when people do not.   Liesel’s words give Max, a Jewish man living in her foster parents’ basements, hope.  She tells him about the sky and the weather, and he makes her a book explaining how powerful she was to have the influence of words at her fingertips.

The power of words is evident throughout The Book Thief.  While Rosa is at first painted as an unfeeling, sour woman exhausted with life, she later shows a part of her heart that is capable of loving.  At first, I felt sympathy for Liesel whenever she had to travel with Mama Rosa to collect the washing because Rosa was strict and simply mean.  She seemed to not understand children at all, and I wondered if she even cared about Liesel or if the whole foster arrangement was set-up by Hans in the first place.  As the story unfolds, I start to see the love that Rose has for her little saumench when she comes to school to sneakily tell Liesel that Max is awake.  I see the love when she saves Max’s book for Liesel’s birthday.  I see the love she has for Hans after he goes to war and she stays awake at night with his accordion, unable to play a key.  The first thing I noticed about Rosa was the unkind words she used to speak.  But her actions proved to be kind.  This is a reminder that words do carry weight, but if they are not acted upon, they are meaningless.  

Hitler used his words to scare people and to persuade them to join the Nazi party.  But when people realized the cruelty behind his words, they used their actions - in this case, war - to stop him.  Some people even spoke words, such as “Heil Hitler” to appease the Nazi party, while their actions at home were defiant of the Nazi party.  Hans is a great example of this, as he always says “Heil Hitler” to obey the Nazi soliders but is hiding a Jewish man in his home.

The message of The Book Thief is poignant today.  When Liesel rescued a book from a Nazi book-burning of Jewish books, she said that the Nazi’s basically just liked to burn things.  It reminded me of book-burnings today, particularly towards books that feature men or women who are gay.  Erasing someone’s words so they cannot be seen or heard by anyone is hurtful and oppressive, but people are afraid of, and recognize, the power and influence of words.  If someone feels so strongly about a topic, perhaps that person should write about why and use his/her words to express the opposite opinion, rather than destroy the message of another person.

The messages in The Book Thief are abundant, and I am sure that I missed major points of symbolism throughout the novel.  But I gleaned so much information from this book about Nazi Germany.  I often wondered, “How could people have let Hitler, one man, control so many and hurt so many people?”  I realize that it was because of the influence of his words.  I recommend reading Zukar’s words in The Book Thief, whether you’re doing a classroom unit about the Holocaust or just want to read an interesting book for yourself.  You can check it out from your local library (if those triple holds are finally fulfilled) to see what you think it’s all about! 

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