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An Old Story Made New Again
on September 14, 2006
How rare the times that we read something entirely new and unique! It has been said that there are no new stories to tell, and I will not argue that. There really are only a few novel plots, although it is in our endless variations that we set ourselves apart as writers and word-artists, perhaps also as readers, in the manner and voice in which we tell the story. This is true for Markus Zusak in his creative storytelling of "The Book Thief."
The story is one of the oldest ones told: the narrator is mankind's friend/nemesis, Death, ancient as Time itself, and the scenes Death (not without compassion and not without wry humor) narrates for us are those of human suffering and endurance, an eventual overcoming of conflicts and obstacles, a story of love pitted against hate, of the victory of the best in all of us over the worst in any of us. Zusak's main characters are a 9-year old girl, Liesel Meminger, her companion and young partner in crime, Rudy, and a Jewish refugee named Max hiding in the basement of the house where she lives, herself something of a refugee in Nazi Germany during WWII. A wide range of secondary characters fill in all gaps and keep us reading with fascination, e.g. Liesel's adoptive family, especially her cruel and ascerbic foster mother, Rosa, who on occasion cracks to show a bit of humanity; the mayor's deeply depressed wife, who quietly allows Liesel to "steal" her books; Liesel's young comrades in thievery, and many more.
It is hard to pinpoint what it is, precisely, that makes Zusak's work so unique. But I knew it, felt it, instantly, page one, first line. Voice, yes. Style. A few experimental approaches in his storytelling, such as illustrations inserted in the novel with all errors present, just as Max wrote the text and drew the pictures for his young friend, Liesel. Death's narration is unique, too, with occasional bolded quotes that give just the right amount of distance. There are many such details that all come together to form a story worth reading, worth hearing, worth understanding. It is the story of Liesel, a spunky little book thief, who does far more than steal good books. Liesel steals hearts. In our smallest, we often find our greatest heroes.