Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Book Thief: Final Review

SPOILER ALERT: If you've not yet finished The Book Thief and you're one of those people who hates it when people give away the ends of books, skip this review.

Human beings are a frightening and incomprehensible bunch.

This, at least, is Death's final assessment of humanity in Markus Zusack's The Book Thief. The Grim Reaper, having witnessed both the worst examples of hateful human behavior (in Hitler and Nazi Germany) and also the best that humanity has to offer (in the Hubermanns' sacrifices for Max), ends his story with the words, "I am haunted by humans."

This haunting (which is a wonderful reversal -- Death afraid of humans instead of the other way around) seems to stem from Death's recognizing the inconsistent and indefinable nature of humanity.

How can it be, Death implies in his tale, that a people so capable of nobility and kindness and sacrifice can also be so capable of absolute hatred and evil?

For example, consider this description Death gives us of Jews being murdered in gas chambers at Auschwitz:

"When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity's certain breadth. They just kept feeding me. Minute after minute. Shower after shower" (349).

And then, on the next page, Death makes an important observation, directed at his readers:

"They were Jews, and they were you" (350).

They were human, Death says, and yet, other humans did this to them. Other humans caused this holocaust and let these murders happen.

All of this gives special meaning to one of Death's earlier statements:

"You want to know what I look like? I'll help you out. Find yourself a mirror" (307).

Death knows that at times he is simply an agent of humans, and the face of Death really is the face of mankind.

And yet, Death also knows that humans are so definitely capable of kindness.

For example, when Death comes to collect the soul of an Allied pilot whose plane has crashed, he witnesses this:

"[Rudy] reached into his toolbox again and searched through some picture frames to pull out a small, stuffed yellow toy."

"Carefully, he climbed to the dying man."

"He placed the smiling teddy bear cautiously onto the pilot's shoulder. The tip of its ear touched his throat."

"The dying man breathed it in. He spoke. In English, he said, 'Thank you.'"

And while Rudy's kindness should seem to soften Death's attitude towards humanity, it only makes humans even more incomprehensible. Death is haunted by humans because they are so immensely unpredictable. Humans are both noble and despicable, both giving and hateful, both great and selfish. What makes us either good or evil is a mystery, and nothing rings so hauntingly as an incomplete answer to the mystery of human nature. Are we good? Evil? Cruel? Kind? Pathetic? Divine? Not even Death knows.

But that's only half the brilliance of The Book Thief. The rest is this:

Death's final words -- "I am haunted by humans" -- are more than just a declaration. They're also an invitation. Because I've read Death's story, I've also seen the mystery of human nature. I've also seen both the god-like and the evil sides of humanity, and so in Death's final words, he invites me to recognize the mystery and be haunted with him.

And I am.

That's why The Book Thief is spectacular.

The Book Thief WWADY Rating = 9/10


MicaelaA said...

Thank you for your reviews, questions, etc. on "The Book Thief." I'm a librarian in Kansas, just researching for a new book group we've started amongst ourselves. Very helpful comments, too... Thanks, everyone.

I was going to suggest "The Good Thief" but got it mixed up!

Oh, and your previous post is the first I'd heard that "Olive Kitteridge" won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I'm reading it now because my 101-year-old grandmother bought it last year at the new Barnes & Noble on a field trip with her Assisted Care Center and recommended it to me. She had been an English teacher, and related well to the stories in all their conjugations of life. I love that I can buy books for my library!

Professor Josh said...

MicaelaA - Thanks for your comment. Being a librarian in Kansas sounds like it'd be fantastic (and there's nothing more fun than buying books with money that isn't yours).

Diane said...

Thanks for your insights Josh. I'd love to discuss this book with you sometime. I finished it a couple weeks but still think about it.

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