So here’s the thing about THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak:

You know how it’s going to end.

I don’t mean that in a general It’s-World-War-II-We-All-Know-How-It-Ends kind of way.  I mean it very literally.  Before we get the setting of Himmel street, before we know what year it is, before we even know Liesel’s name, death tells us how the book is going to end.  Page twelve through fifteen is the closing scene.  Of course you get an emotionally raw, extended version from page 529-539, but it isn’t a shock; you know it’s coming.  No tension.  No suspense.  There it is.

So, why would Mr. Zusak do this?  I think the answer is simple.  He does this because this is how he believes that Death would tell a story.  In fact, Death spells it out for you about halfway through the book

Of course, I’m being rude.  I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it.  I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery.  Mystery bores me.  It chores me.  I know what happens and so do you.  It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.

Rare is the day that you get a good self-analysis by an author about his own writing through one of his own characters.  But it’s all too true.  As a writer, you’re told to make sure the stakes and tension are high.  What’s higher than putting someone in a life and death situation and spinning the wheel of Fate?  In THE BOOK THIEF, life and death is part of the setting.  Nazi Germany was a dangerous place.  But instead of using that, Death is going to tell you straight up who dies.  He even gives you a little countdown.

If all that’s true, then what made me keep turning the pages?  As Death tells us, it’s the machinations–it’s life and living it–that is the interesting part. There’s daily drama that’s compelling enough.  Where will Liesel get her next book?  Will she keep having nightmares about the death of her brother?  Will she finally kiss Rudy (although Death spoils that one for us too)?  What will happen to the Jewish boy they have hidden in the basement? How will life change when the war really comes to Munich?  The details of life are compelling enough to pull a reader through a book without needing anything more.

I’m not saying that Death doesn’t drop a few breadcrumbs.  He indicates when Liesel is going to steal another book and where she might go to get it.  He refers to something as “The Jesse Owens Incident” and lets you wait a few chapters before you get the rest of the story.  He calls Liesel “The Heavyweight Champion of the Schoolyard” and then spins out the story after he has your interest.  It’s an interesting device actually. I learned that if you hint at an incident and make sure you do it with a good hook, your reader will probably hang out to get the whole story.  In THE BOOK THIEF, it works well more than once.

Obviously, there’s more to the plotting than what I’ve presented here.  That was also true of the characters and setting and I suspect it’s going to also be true when I play with the writing style in the next post.  And that’s one of the delights of this book. It’s one of those books that you can re-read, even if you’re not a re-reader, and find something new to analyze, discuss, or pick at.

Until Monday…I hope everyone has a good weekend!

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

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