Welcome to the final week of our readalong of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which each of us has read for the first time in preparation for the upcoming film.
We’ve had somewhat mixed feelings about the book overall, but we’ve come to appreciate some of the things our fellow readers have been raving about, and the experience of reading together and discussing with you has certainly been enjoyable.
The Book Thief Readalong: Week Four
Pages 404 – end
Wendy: I would like to taste a Kipferl cookie. It seems like it would be good dipped in cocoa. I am writing this right after jumping in on a middle grade lit chat that was all about book food, so I’m a little obsessed.
Kate: When I was a kid I wanted to open a restaurant where I would only sell cookies and coke. And guess what I had for lunch today? Obviously I, too, would like to try these cookies.
Wendy: I have to admit to occasionally being charmed by phrases such as “As she crossed the river, a rumor of sunshine stood behind the clouds.”
Kate: Oh, that’s a good one. I liked that, too.
Wendy: The scene with the downed plane was well done. If Death would just limit his presence to scenes like those, I’d appreciate this so much more.
Kate: I liked that, too. Did the list of things in Rudy’s toolbox or whatever feel twee to you? I’m curious whether the narrator’s voice, which is super masculine, made it seem silly when it would not have otherwise.
Wendy: A bit, yes. And the teddy bear for the soldier was sweet, but at the same time I felt very aware that it was supposed to be and therefore I dug my heels in at it a bit. I’m just contrary that way.
Kate: That’s part of what bothered me about the list of things in the tool box. The explanation for the inclusion of the teddy bear felt suspect.
Wendy: Agreed. Here’s The End of the World, Part I. EVERYONE IS DEAD. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that Liesel is saved because she was reading, Mr. Zusak. The power of words, I know, I know.
Kate: Speaking of that, I cringed at “…the words who had saved her life,” partially because earlier he’d said the sky was dripping “Like a tap that a child has tried its hardest to turn off,” and the idea that the words are people but this hypothetical simile child is not really bothers me for some reason.
Wendy: “The words who” bothered me in that phrase. I don’t know if it was deliberate phrasing–I guess so, but I don’t like it.
I hate that Mama and Papa die, but I do like the scene where Death takes them. But then it annoys me that right after we see that, then we’re jerked back to an earlier time before he’s dead. I don’t understand the purpose of shifting back and forth in this way, especially at this point. It makes me angry.
K: Well, Death says it himself that he lets us know beforehand to soften the blow, as some of our friends have commented, but the story isn’t done yet so he has to go back and tell the rest of it. I don’t necessarily agree with all the jerking back and forth but I suppose it did give me a minute to accept the sad, terrible truth and prepare my heart for the ache to come. Still though!!
Wendy: I get it, he’s spelled out what he’s doing very clearly. I just don’t like it, hah.
K: Totally agree. And I absolutely LOVED the scenes of Death taking their souls. All of the scenes. How Frau Holtzapfel was almost “waiting.” And Rudy just sleeping!! And how Death caressed Rudy’s mother’s head and kissed the little ones good night. How Hans’ soul sat up and greeted him. How Rosa was midsnore. It was terrible and tragic but…not beautiful…just…somehow made it easier to let them go, knowing Death isn’t this cold, unfeeling thing. That he has some sympathy. That they were being carried off by someone or something that knew them and tried to understand them.
Kate: Yeah, except that earlier when there was a bombing he said that “It was only the children I carried in my arms.” He said he carried the grownups on his fingers like suitcases or something. He didn’t know who Mama and Papa were at the time; why did he carry each of them in one arm like they were special? When I look back on my life so far, I can remember so many little kindnesses people did me without my even realizing how important they were at the time. It’s almost overwhelming to think about how basically good in so many tiny ways everyone is, and Death carried them like suitcases? I find this upsetting.
Wendy: Huh. I didn’t think about that at the time, but I wonder why that differentiation was made, too.
K: The image of Rosa sitting and gripping Hans’ accordion. I will be Rosa’s spokeswoman for as long as she needs me to root for her.
Kate: I get why this is emotionally resonant. I get the appeal of the grizzled, seemingly hard-hearted old person who is all mushy on the inside. I also cannot forget that Rosa beat a terrified child she was fostering. I work with a charity that helps kids who are in the foster program get adopted, and that shit is rampant and it is terrifying and it is wrong to portray a person who does it as just misunderstood or something. Not that I think you’re wrong for liking the character; she was written to be loved in spite of her gruffness. My beef is with the author.
K: No, I understand Kate. I get why you are so passionate about this particular issue.
Wendy: I was touched by Rosa sorrowing over the accordian too, but I still have mixed feelings about her. And I’m glad to be reminded that it’s not okay to do this to a child. Human beings are so complex and there’s no telling how she came to be this way; I would like to have seen more nuance and back story and development in Rosa, but as is, I remain not as much of a champion of hers as I think I would like to be.
Kate: I feel like I’m coming across as lecturing you about child abuse being a bad thing, which obviously is not a thing you need to be preached at about. It’s kind of impotent anger because I cannot lecture the author directly. I wish that Rosa was a male character; then we might have gotten some good backstory on how she came to behave this way. I’m bitter this week, huh?
Wendy: Probably right on that. And here’s more survivor’s guilt. Poor Michael Holtzapfel.
Kate: Dude. That was really sad.
K: Yea. That one really struck me. When he said he felt ashamed for wanting to live after he had left his mother in her kitchen, I felt the parallel with Max, though their situations differed, they still walked away from someone: Max from his family when he chose to escape, and Michael leaving his mother when he chose to take shelter.
And Michael’s mother after finding his body…how “she could no longer walk.” This, too, uses the same imagery to parallel Liesel’s mother after her brother died. Death wonders how she could still be standing upright, or something of that nature.
Kate: Michael’s mother. Oh man. The stuff about that family was rough.
Wendy: Yes, it was. Oh, the scene when Liesel and Max see each other on the street! :( But you know, realistically he probably would have been killed (and maybe she, too) right after that.
Kate: I know. This last section really suffered from the lack of Max. He’s my favorite part of the story, so once he was there I wanted him to stay.
Wendy: Agree wholeheartedly. The sections we’ve covered in weeks two and three have been my favorites of this readalong because of that, as well as plot-wise and writing-wise.
K: And Rudy coming to rescue her. I kept going back to the line way back after he rescued her book in the Amper River…how he “must have loved her so hard.” RUDY!! With this boy, this book is literally wringing my heart for all the tears it’s worth. Seriously. At the back of my copy, Zusak confesses that Rudy is his favourite character; how as soon as Rudy painted himself black and called himself Jesse Owens, Rudy had stolen his heart. Mine too, gosh darn it.
Wendy: I’m not surprised he’s the author’s favorite character–that seems pretty apparent from the huge build-up and martrydom. Although I admit his death did not happen in the manner that I expected, I thought it’d be more of a standalone event.
Kate: He’s pretty great. And yes, his role as Zusak’s favorite is pretty obvious. I cared much less about whether or not Rudy got a kiss than the author did, I’ll tell you that.
Wendy: I cared at first, but it was pointed out so much that he wasn’t going to get it, that I stopped caring. Man, I sound so cold-hearted, but while I was very sorry he died, I was already so numb to it that I didn’t cry. But this:
She was saying goodbye, and she didn’t even know it.
K: Okay, seriously, my heart cannot take this.
Wendy: I have to say, I really don’t like this part, though.
“Don’t make me happy….I don’t want to hope for anything anymore. I don’t want to pray that Max is alive and safe. Or Alex Steiner. Because the world does not deserve them.”
I understand technically what the author is trying to achieve by this, that she no longer cares about life and feels if they can’t survive, as good as they are, etc, etc., but I felt this was a bit of an over-reaching sentiment for her age, at least expressed in those words. I don’t know, I felt manipulated more than affected by the statement.
Kate: I think part of the problem for me with Liesel’s voice is that she kind of jumps from age 11 to age 14, you know? She was just learning to read a few chapters ago, and there is nothing in there to really show us a difference between her behavior then and now. She still does all the same things, only now she has tingly feelings for Rudy and she speaks and writes like she’s composing…I don’t know, Beowulf or something.
Wendy: You’re right about that. It’s a big leap from being illiterate to being able to articulate such complex and poetic thoughts.
Kate: So, “The Last Letter” to Mrs. Hermann. It… Hmm. How to say. It does not feel like a letter a human would write to another human. Right?
K: Haha, Kate, what do you mean? I think if anything it might have been just a tad too intuitive and poetic for a fourteen year old to write.
Kate: Yeah, that’s kind of what I mean. It’s pretty poetic for a quick little note. I mean, she wrote it on an impulse, quickly and with passion, but it doesn’t read that way.
Wendy: Oh, we’re in agreement on this. It seems carefully thought out, and not really natural. Maybe that’s part of what I can’t grasp about Liesel, too–as much as I like some things about her, other actions and words just don’t seem as authentic to me.
Kate: Death’s ability to tell us things about Rudy based on what he (Death) remembers seeing in his (Rudy’s) soul when he died is a good example of confusing omniscience. Why hasn’t he told us about the other souls? Why don’t we have all that information?
Wendy: One of many. *sigh*
Kate: You save someone. You kill them. How was he supposed to know? I really liked this. I am one of those people who TOIL, Sliding Doors-style, over which choice will lead to better things ultimately, and which things I’ve done in the past have led me to good or bad places in my life.
Wendy: I tend to ruminate over that sort of thing, too. And I am glad that Max and Liesel were able to find each other after all those years.
This ending line is also lovely, though again, it also illustrates my struggle with the book as well. Beautiful words, but lending emotion to Death in a way that I both liked and disliked throughout the story, so that what’s meant to be profound leaves me appreciative, but not necessarily as deeply moved as I’m meant to be.
I am haunted by humans.
Wendy: So, let’s finish this discussion with how you’d rate the book. I’m at 3.5 stars, but on GoodReads I would be rounding down rather than up. Honestly, if it weren’t for “The Standover Man” that Max wrote for Liesel, it’d be 3 stars. A lot of great ideas and themes in this book and there are moments of true beauty, but overall I felt pretty let down. Sorry, Book Thief fans! I feel bad that I didn’t connect with this more, but it’s one of those cases where the writing style just didn’t mesh well with me. Oh, well.
Kate: I’d rate this 3 stars. I think that the primary reason this book didn’t really work for me is that stories told from a child’s perspective are poignant in large part because the child doesn’t understand the deeper meanings behind what is going on. It is crucial that the person hearing or reading the story be able to discover that poignancy herself, otherwise it doesn’t really mean anything. I think that the way this story is told–with the flowery explanations of everything–destroys the heart of it. Death as a narrator feels like a gimmick of an idea that this sweet little story got shoehorned into. That said, the last few pages were lovely. While I did not cry at the end, I can understand why so many people did. I wish more of the book had been told in the nice, straightforward style of that final section.
K: I would rate it 3.5. The writing style was my biggest issue. It stood in between almost all feelings I might have developed for the characters and the plot. Saying that, the more this book marinated in my mind and eventually my heart, it began to seep inside me and it bled all over. The final parts of this book did me in and I felt the emotions I’d been craving the entire book. (Though to be honest, some of that might also be the adrenaline of finishing a book and all the stress of such a tragic story evokes). So overall, it wasn’t the story I was hoping for but I am not sorry I read it in the least. In fact, I think I might even grow to love it after a second read — might.
As always, please let us know in the comments!
Frankly, it’s been a little scary hosting this readalong once we realized that the three of us weren’t going to be as in love with it as so many others seem to be. Still, all three of us have found things to appreciate about the story and the characters, and I think we’re in agreement that we’re glad we’ve read it, and that we read it together. And it looks like K may even find room in heart for this book to expand even further!
Thank you SO much to all of you for being so patient with our questions, and to those who love the book especially for listening to our point of view. We appreciate the discussion more than we can say.