I don’t know exactly why I picked this book. I was browsing through Amazon’s Kindle Store as I regularly do when I’m bored (this online shopping thing has done wonders for my financial fitness. Obviously.) when I saw this in the Young Adult fiction section.
I thought it was going to be something bright and breezy and fun.
Turns out I was wrong.
“The Book Thief” is the tale of a young girl in Nazi Germany, Liesel, who finds love, hope and freedom in the midst of hatred and destruction.
Wait. That sounded a lot more trite than it actually is.
Because there is nothing typical or simple or sensible about “The Book Thief”.
The road was cold and straight. It wasn’t long till the soldiers came with the Jews. In the tree shadows, Liesel watched the boy. How things had changed, from fruit stealer to bread giver. His blond hair, although darkening, was like a candle. She heard his stomach growl — and he was giving people bread. Was this Germany? Was this Nazi Germany?
That’s about Rudy, by the way, the young boy-next-door who never had enough to eat yet braved the coldest river to save a book in exchange for a chaste kiss.
That’s them: Rudy and Rosa and Hans and Max and Alex and Liesel and everyone else on Himmel Street.
It’s all about them.
The thing about history is that we all like to think of things in very grandiose terms. The world is a struggle between giants. Adolf Hitler versus Winston Churchill. MacArthur makes the Emperor of Japan surrender.
And then we go into statistics mode. Millions of Jews. Thousands of Germans.
Faceless. Lifeless. Meaningless.
We do not care. Or maybe we don’t want to. Because caring about the lives of millions innocently caught up in the battle between giants is a difficult thing we can’t face without breaking down and going insane.
History can be a little too black and white.
Germans bad. Americans good.
It’s very easy to just believe that the entirety of Germany decided to rise up and straight murder the Jews. Them. Their neighbours, friends, lovers — all of them Jews who’ve been Germans just like everyone else before it became illegal to be of the wrong race, the wrong colour, the wrong religion.
That is a very human thing to do.
To categorise. To label.
The truth is that we don’t give ourselves enough credit.
Germans. They’re a lot more human than we wish them to be. Because realising that a lot of Germans did their best to help and hide their Jewish friends is beyond the ken of normal understanding.
Why would we bomb German cities? Why would the good guys murder innocent people?
Why would we kill Hans? Rosa? Rudy?
Why bomb a street full of ordinary people? An accordion player. A loudmouth nag. A boy with lemon-coloured hair.
What’s the point?
I wish there was a better answer.
One better than “this is war; we do what we have to do.” Truthful, practical, but no less heartbreaking.
“The Book Thief” tells us we’re better than that, really.
That despite our penchant for destruction, our capacity for good is equal, if not greater.
That there’s more to us than one-dimensional, sterilised categorisations.