Nazi Germany.  It’s so familiar; it almost feels like a cliché.  In THE BOOK THIEF we see something new in Hitler’s Germany.  And I think that’s  because Markus Zusak thinks small.

The setting for THE BOOK THIEF is Molching, Germany, a small, fictional town outside of Munich.  Within the small town setting, Mr. Zusak focuses on Himmel street.  By page fifty of THE BOOK THIEF, we get a roll-call of the people of Himmel street.  Liesel and her foster parents, the Hubermanns; Frau Holtzapfel and her decade-long grudge against Mrs. Hubermann; Ruby Steiner, Liesel’s best friend; Frau Diller, the loyal Nazi, Tommy Miller, a twitchy, sweet misfit; and Pfiffikus, the man who whistles and swears too much.  It’s a microcosm of the war.  One loyal to Hitler (Diller), one defiant (Liesel’s foster father), and everyone else just trying to survive.  And it’s few enough characters that in a five-hundred and fifty page book, you can get to know each one pretty well.

Using such a small town setting was a brilliant choice.  In ways, it felt almost like Mayberry or Maycomb, Alabama.  I know this sounds crazy: Liesel’s foster mother is vicious with the wooden spoon, bullies grasp for power among the small-town childhood gangs, and starving Jews are marched through their town on the way to Dachau.  Still, at the same time, the children played ball games in the street and got into mischief (or even a little trouble).  There’s a little light romance.  If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you could almost envision the kids.  At the same time, this horrible war and genocide is happening.  Can you feel my unease at the two conflicting images?  It’s boggling.

Here’s another place where thinking small really worked.  There was really only one Jewish person in THE BOOK THIEF.  Although there are nameless lines of Jewish people marching to Dachau, only Max Vandenburg, the man hidden in Liesel’s basement, represents the Jewish point of view.  Just one name and voice for the millions killed during the Holocaust.  And, man, is it effective.  You feel his guilt and fear and anger.  He daydreams about having a fist-fight with Hitler.  He is a stark representation of the rage that German-Jewish population must have felt and their confusion as to where to focus their anger.

Finally, thinking small leads us to Liesel and Rudy, the two protagonists of this story.  There’s a real advantage in telling the story from the most powerless position–that of children.  Liesel and Rudy each have their own small rebellions–Rudy’s very non-PC attachment to Olympic hero Jessie Owens and Liesel’s propensity to steal books.  But, for the most part, they have very little control over their own destiny.  Liesel is forced to leave her mother to live with her foster parents. They both go to Hitler Youth.  And yet, they each have more freedom than Max.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Death as the point of view character.  I thought this was amazing.  It could have been so cheesy but not it Mr. Zusak’s hands.  Death is a character bothered and intrigued by humanity.  He describes war as an over-demanding boss, always requiring more.  And he’s funny.  Some of the commentary actually had me snickering because of the dry, black wit.

The characters are so well put together, that I could probably spend a blog post on each one.  Honestly, the character development in Liesel from the time she comes to Himmel Street to the end of the book is so dramatic that you feel like you’re watching her mature.  Rudy’s arc isn’t quite so striking, but he’s still a well-rounded character with some beautiful depth.  Frau and Herr Hubermann, Liesel’s foster parents, deserve a mention but I don’t know where to start.  If I had to draw a comparison, I would use Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert from ANNE OF GREEN GABLES.  And, yes, it sounds odd to me too.

So next time, I’m going to tackle the plotting.  What keeps me turning the pages in THE BOOK THIEF?  Because truth be known, I finished the book in under twenty four hours.  Until next time.

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.

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