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Book Review

The Champagne Will Never Taste So Good

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak

Recommended age: 14+
Adventure, Fiction

“In the basement, when she wrote about her life, Liesel vowed that she would never drink champagne again, for it would never taste as good as it did on that warm afternoon in July” (357).

In the last eight years I have mostly lost the habit of writing in the margins of books, instead keeping shorthand notes with page numbers near the beginning of the volume, or making digital notes files with transcriptions. I think this change must have been motivated by the constant need to useevidence to support claims I knew I would be making about the text.

So why did I feel the need to frame, in pencil, this passage of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief? I think it was because I wanted to make sure nobody would ever read this book, this copy anyway, without a sign that here was a moment to stop and re-read and pause and let that thought sink in. We get what we want so fast—I am getting it right now, writing; you, reading—this book grips and drags us through the rocky, dusty, hacking, hungry, shelling story of Liesel Meminger’s life so fast, that when Zusak tells us to pause, we had best pause. When we get what we want so fast, seeing a girl’s resolution to lay up champagne on a shelf in her heart for the rest of her life ought to make us stop and ask why.

The Book Thief is the story of a pre-pubescent German girl dropped off by her mother with foster parents in 1939 in Molching, a fictional town whose name is an M added to a northern suburb of Munich, near Dachau. Zusak orchestrates a fine rhythm of realistic but artfully conjured shocks—no indulgence in the vulgar addiction for graphic violence and sex here—light, nostalgic reels of coming-of-age experiences of childhood friendship that we have all had, but that still feel fresh like a breeze on a bike-ride; and quiet, poignant moments of sympathy and pure love. This is no mere World War II novel; no charlatan preying upon our Holocaust-guilt and playing with house money. Zusak presumes nothing, but humbly fashions credible characters and shows us how they would react to true situations.

Take his narrator for example. You would expect the personification of death to skip gleefully across the pages of a story set within hiking distance of the first concentration camp of Nazi Germany. Zusak’s Death, however, is “exhausted from his eternal existence and his job,” and even “afraid” of humans, as the author himself comments in an interview included in the endmatter of the 2005 Knopf edition (page 10 of the curiously re-started pagination). When Death was saying creepy things and delighting in his job, Zusak reveals in the interview, “the book wasn’t working.” So instead we get a Death who stands in awe of life, and is as baffled at his behavior as we are. Death is telling this story, according to Zusak, “to prove to himself that humans are actually worth it.” Worth what, exactly?

I am not sure, but I think finding out is worth spending hundreds of pages with Zusak’s characters: Hans Hubermann (played by Geoffrey Rush in the Brian Percival directed 2013 film, which I have not yet seen but am looking forward to), Liesel’s foster-father who teaches her to read; Rudy Steiner, her coeval and constant companion, whose one goal in life (apart from running as fast as black American Olympian Jesse Owens) is getting Liesel to give him one kiss; Max Vandenburg, Zusak’s type for the lone Jew hunted in the prime of his life, a man whose story would have been one of conflict and triumph or tragic ruin, except that he woke up one day to find that his country had declared total war upon him making him a lichen or a nothing, and Rosa Hubermann, Liesel’s foster-mother and perhaps the most complex character of the novel, who for me at least, if not for Zusak (Rudy is his favorite, and with good reason!), left the deepest impression of all of them in the chapter entitled “the promise-keeper’s wife” (429). I say I think it is worth hundreds of pages. Hundreds, sure. But 550?

How is it that a novel written like a blog post and constantly perforated with bold-type strings of asterisks framing all-caps sentence fragments can take so long to tell its story? This is the book’s greatest weakness. Zusak thinks that “every page in every book can have a gem on it” (interview, 11). For him that means thinking of three different metaphors to say the same thing until he finds the right one…and then using all three anyway. He says his best moments in a day of writing remind him of a child playing in a sandpit; unfortunately the comparison often fits too well.

I will select just a few categories from the catalog I recorded in my copy of the book. The most common flaws are pleonasm, absurd hyperbole (140, 133), and dramatic inconsistencies like anachronism and permitting Death to know Liesel’s thoughts (109) after telling us that she is an enigma to him (14). The sentence about the Duden Dictionary being wrong on p. 398 could lose 8 of its 15 words and lose absolutely nothing of its flavor or substance. The “deer in headlights” cliché (112) belies the fact that for Liesel riding in a car was an alien experience (26). Another time Zusak can’t decide between “shaking” and “shaken”, so he decides to use both (185; similarly “midst” and “mists”, 49; at 57 he does not seem to know the difference between “(a)rose” and “raised”). The book could have been a hundred pages shorter; perhaps this was the difference between a great book and a really good one.

Parents will also want to be aware of mature themes of cruelty (some beatings), frequent blasphemies (taking the names of the Holy Family and of Jesus Christ in vain), and a few of the junior varsity cuss-words. That these expressions are usually in the mouths of sympathetic characters makes it potentially worse.

What stays with us, I think, will be the superhuman restraint Zusak shows in painting the picture on page 455 in the tailor’s shop, or the scene I already mentioned on page 429.

Yes, worth it.

Study Questions

  • When do you think that Rudy and Liesel’s friendship is good?
  • Are there times when you think that it is bad for them?
  • Is Max Vandenburg a totally sympathetic character?
  • Should we always only feel sympathy for him, or does he do anything that we might judge bad?
  • What makes Liesel lovable?
  • Are there any moments when you wish she would have made a different decision, even if her decision was not wrong per se?
  • What do you think about Frau Holtzapfel’s decision? If she had acted differently, would the book have been better or worse as a book?

About the Reviewer

Lionel Yaceczko

Latin, Greek
Lionel Yaceczko holds a BA from the University of Dallas, where he wrote a thesis on Propertius, and a MA and Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. His dissertation on education in the Roman Empire led to the publication of his book Ausonius Grammaticus (Gorgias Press, 2021). He is also the author of an introductory Latin textbook, Jerome...
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