As I sort through my research and attempt to put into stories the events of 1939-1945, I find myself reading and rereading books about that time. I am fascinated by the massive jigsaw puzzle that was World War II. No one was left unaffected by it, and there are millions, billions of collected fragments and stories from these insane years. Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, put so clearly into words the immense beauty and ugliness of this time period. Most notably the author of The Book Thief, a Printz Honor Book, Zusak has also written The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, When Dogs Cry, and I am the Messenger.
Zusak was born in Sydney, Austrailia, in 1975. He is one of four children. He studied English and History at the University of New South Wales. He taught at Engadine High School after graduating. His first novel, The Underdog, took seven years to publish.
The Book Thief spent 375 straight weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. The book is set in Nazi Germany and is, appropriate to the time, narrated by the character Death. Zusak’s mother Lisa is originally from Germany, and his father Helmut is from Austria. Both moved to Australia in the 1950s. In an interview with Random House Kids, Zusak says, “I was inspired to write The Book Thief because of memories sitting in my kitchen when I was a kid hearing stories my parents told me. It was like, we were all glued to our seats hearing stories of bombings in Munich and Austria.”
Zusak says that the stories he heard from the war represent man’s capability for both pure beauty and pure destruction. He said he heard stories about his dad, who didn’t want to go to Hitler Youth, and people who didn’t want to hang Nazi flags outside their window, and he decided to write about those people.
In The Book Thief, Hans Hubermann, Liesel’s foster father, is the epitome of this idea. He is described as a person whose eyes “were made of kindness, and sliver. Like soft silver, melting…Hans Hubermann was worth a lot” (Zusak, 34). Liesel notices “the quiet air around him.” Hubermann is a character who, in his own way, stands up for what is right. He puts off joining the Nazi party. He hides Max Vanderburg, a Jew, in his basement. When Jews are paraded through Himmel Street, he gives one a piece of bread. Zusak shows Hubermann’s bravery, his kindness, and what it cost him throughout the book.
Zusak decided to make Death the narrator of the book because of the saying, war and death are best friends. He says, “Where is that more true than in Nazi Germany? Death was everywhere at that time and place.” Zusak wrote 200 pages of the book, only to realize that as a character, Death sounded too sadistic and cruel. He rewrote the book, from Liesel’s perspective, and found too many gaps in the narrative. He also said that Liesel sounded like the most Australian German he had ever met. Finally, Zusak decided to go back to Death as the main character, but make Death afraid of humans: he played with the idea that death could be haunted by us.
I think that worked really well in the book, because Zusak is Australian, not German. I think it would have been hard to write a book from a German perspective because that is not his most comfortable voice. By choosing to narrate the book as Death, Zusak was able to bring us into the world as an outside observer.
Liesel Meminger, the main character, has a fascination with words, even before she learns how to read. When she learns to read letters and words, she becomes hungry for more. She is always reading and writing. In the book, Max Vanderburg draws a parallel between her and Hitler, who also hungers for words. Nazi Germany grew out of the incredible power that words and ideas can have on people. Rather than be convinced and cast under a spell by Hitler’s words, however, Liesel chooses to find her own. In Max’s mind, Liesel becomes a “word shaker,” able to rise above the words and propaganda of Nazi Germany. Liesel steals books when she needs an escape from the cruelty of life and war. It is words that save her, both as she writes her own story, and as she rereads it in the basement during the bombing of Munich.
Zusak uses his own power of words to illustrate the beauty and the ugly, side by side in Nazi Germany. He paints pictures of brutality and courage, cruelty and kindness, life and death. He captures, with his words and images, the irony and paradox of an unforgettable era in history.
Zusak was asked in an interview with NPR if the book was written more for teenagers or for adults. Zusak answered, “I wasn’t shooting exactly for an audience. I have bigger problems when I’m writing… and I’ve found that it’s to underestimate teenagers as well. There are teenagers out there who have been given this book, and it’s not just a book that says here is a book about you, here is a book about your problems. It’s more like, here is book for you, but you’ve gotta step up to read this, and teenagers will surprise us every time, I find.” He says that he set out to write the book exactly the way he wanted to. He wanted to write his favorite book. I think that authenticity is what helped the book resonate with so many people.
Zusak is currently working on his next book, Bridge of Clay. He says the key to writing, for him, is to write like no one will ever read it. Whatever the outcome, he will have at least one avid reader here.