The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, was the choice of my Jr High book club. I bought this book seven years ago when I first started teaching and never got around to reading it, so I was grateful for my club of reading fans for picking it as our book to read. And what a book!!
It was interesting to me that in our first conversation about the book one of the students who had seen the movie adaptation said that she thought God was the narrator, not death. This opened up a lot of conversations about death and how we talk and think about death. We thought it was interesting how much compassion death had for those he was collecting. Throughout the novel, death repeated expresses his displeasure and distaste with humanity for the scale of work they create for him. He reflects on how war is no longer an equal to him, but now a weapon used to destroy others completely.
As we read, the students were truly disturbed by the scenes of the Jewish prisoners being marched into Dachau, yet the approach was new and made them think about Hitler’s Germany in a different way. They saw from the inside out what it was like for those who tried to resist: jail, concentration camps, sent to the front lines, beaten, whipped, bullied, shunned.
As death describes his work, he shows reverence for humanity and the human spirit. He shows respect for those who live a full life and die well. He shows compassion for those who are left behind. He shows honour in how he perceives the importance of every single soul, even on the nights when he touches thousands of them.
I am happy to say that resilience was a word we were left talking about. Liesel, even after losing her friends and family, is able to continue on. That ability to cope and live on was inspiring to the students in the book club. They were devastated by the story Zusak tells and had a hard time moving beyond the cruelty of humans toward other humans.
Yet the worst part was bringing in some Canadian facts: Canadians allowed the cultural genocide of entire Nations and no one seemed to stop that (yet, we all know there are those who spoke for the trees, so to speak).
There are numerous accounts of the Canadian Government conducting experiments on students in Aboriginal residential schools: Psychic experiments, food and nutrition experiments. Students also died in residential schools without proper records being kept. Generations of families were broken and separated. Thousands of children were filled with fear, shame, and guilt. Culture, language, teachings, and stories were lost and destroyed in order for the Government to get rid of the “Indian Problem” so that they could use the land instead of sharing the land. We, as Canadians, have a lot to see in our shared history with the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people who we share this land with.
For me The Book Thief was a new way of looking at humanity and the needless suffering we cause by being driven by our fears instead of acting always in love. The majority of our conversations revolved around the relationships in the book and the connections people had with each out of genuine interest and love. Walking away from this book I am left with the impression that we need to be reminded of our darkest moments so that we can see how fear and hatred thrive. In order to live boldly in love, we need to see each other as beautiful humans and honour the beauty in all.
“What we all want should look a little more like love” (Shad).
“I am haunted by humans” (Death, The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12).