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Virtue and Terror
Maximilien de Robespierre, Slavoj Žižek, John Howe, Jean Ducange

The Book Thief

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak I read the last fifth of The Book Thief sobbing, something I've never done before—and this was coming after a spectacular morning on a beautiful day. I'm not somebody who cries easily over fiction. However, Markus Zusak does something better than any writer I've read has done: create characters who embedded themselves in my mind not as fictional people, but living creatures made of pieces torn from every corner of my memory. The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany, amongst the civilians living on Himmel Street at the outskirts of Munich. If you don't know from the back cover and the setting there will be a lot of suffering, you'll clue in when the narrator, a melancholy Death, tells you. Death does a lot of foreshadowing, so the reader rarely comes upon a painful scene unprepared. (Is it foreshadowing when the narrator tells you outright something will happen?) Foreshadowing is a tool often used to build tension and suspense, but frequently does so by blunting sadness and loss. Zusak's skill is such that the foreknowledge of death and pain never diminish the reader's experience of them.I suspect the reason the characters of The Book Thief resonate so strongly is because they aren't heroes in the conventional sense. Literary-wise, heroes are the people who step-up in the face of need or are drawn reluctantly into conflict. The heroic characters of the novel are not people who actively seek out to defy the Nazi regime (or the civilians who have embraced it's horrific messages), nor people who are dragged by others into acting. They are "normal" people whose humanity and empathy compel them to make rash acts of kindness. In reading The Book Thief, you come to realize the irony of the adjective "humanity." The most clearly "heroic" character in the novel is Hans Hubermann. His virtue derives from not acting like the rest of humanity. Instead, when confronted with a person in need of compassion, he cannot help but act kindly. He isn't driven by a sense of moral obligation or idealism, but primal, instinctual empathy. The other primary characters (none of whom is a Nazi, expect perhaps by forced party membership) have different reasons for their acts of kindness, but at the core of every one is love and compassion.There are two or three acts of contemplated altruism in the book and the first happens before the events of the book: Hans Hubermann and his wife Rosa decide to take in two orphans*. The reasons for this act of charity is never explained, although one finishes the book with suspicions. Without spoilers, the second and (possible) third altruistic acts can't be discussed, but they are driven not by a desire to give, serve or do justice, but guilt (a recurrent theme) and loss. They, too, are acts of compassion. By presenting readers with characters who are never forced to be something beyond ordinary in all but empathy, I felt their losses far more than heroic characters who have chosen to enter death's path or who are in it for cynical reasons (but come around, maybe, to believe in The Cause). Zusak never rushes the reader along. The chapters don't end with cliff hangers (perhaps with Death foreshadowing so much, there's no need to lure the reader with suspense). The scenes are relatively short, never staying past their welcome, but detailed and poignant enough that the reader is tempted to linger. With each scene and each act of kindness that strikes against the cruelty of humanity, I was drawn deeper into the characters and the characters into me. There is much more that could be said about this book: it's depth is extraordinary; it's phrases and word choices striking and beautiful. However, this is a review of the characters. Few readers will be able to leave Himmel Street without tears. Nor will the characters be likely to leave your mind for long after you finish. I suspect The Book Thief is a classic that will outlive it's youthful author.*The two orphans are Liesel Meminger and her brother. Her brother dies on the trip to the Hubermann's with their mother. Technically, they aren't orphans, but have been abandoned by their mother for reasons best left undisclosed.