Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Book Thief's Words

“Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.” 

This image and the multitude of other amazing images within The Book Thief contribute to my love of this book. The beauty of words within this novel compare so easily with the attention to words within the storyline. As Liesel fell in love with words, I quickly followed suit.

Liesel, the young German protagonist of The Book Thief, begins the novel as an illiterate young girl. Her desire to learn to read stems from the first theft in the story. Liesel steals a book entitled, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. As she learns to read, with help from her adoptive father, Hans, she discovers the joy of words. As Liesel uncovered the pleasure that can come from words, I was thoroughly impressed by the gorgeous language use throughout the novel. Each page offered up a new gem, a new favorite quote. Quotes that dripped with imagery, quotes that drew out a laugh, quotes that produced tears. This novel became the ultimate book of beautiful imagery for me.

The character descriptions are unique and surprisingly consistent. Each comparison, simile, and metaphor used to describe the characters is used throughout the novel with a slight addition each time. For example, Hans’s eyes are silver. However, they are not simply described as silver. “They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting.” Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s best friend, has “lemon-colored hair.” His hair is not referred to as blonde; it is always lemon-colored or yellow. Rosa Hubermann, Liesel’s adoptive mother, has a cardboard face. Throughout the novel, Rosa’s cardboard face cracks or creases. Finally, Max Vandenburg, a Jew, has “hair like feathers.” But, those feathers turn to rustling twigs when Max becomes ill. The metaphors and similes used in the character description seem simplistic, but when I think of these characters, those metaphors and similes are the first things I think of. They are consistent and that makes it easier to remember them in that way. The character’s appearances stick with you, which is why I love how the characters were written. Not only do their actions and thoughts stay with you, but their appearance - their exact appearance.

The colors. Death, the narrator of The Book Thief, is mesmerized by colors. Death’s small theory:
People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.

Death continues by saying that the colors are his distraction from his work. He prefers to look at the colors rather than the “leftover humans.” Red, white, and black are prevalent throughout the novel, simply because they are the colors of the Nazi flag, but there are other colors used as well. “The Cologne sky was yellow and rotting, flaking at the edges.” The imagery used here by Death is why I love this book. This type of imagery is used throughout and it is unique every time. Each image strikes me in a new way, intensifying my love for the novel and for my language with each page.

Death even describes colors without actually using colors. “The sky was the color of Jews.”
Death explains the sky in this way after retrieving Jewish souls from the various concentration camps. “The sky was the color of Jews.” It is possible to simply skim over this sentence during your first reading of the novel (I know I did), but if you really read it, if you see the underlying meaning, it becomes an impressive statement. The Jewish souls were being carried away by Death after they floated up out of the gas showers. I unearth something that was overlooked during my previous readings. Not among the storyline, but among the words. Imagine the sheer number of souls that would be floating there, waiting to move on. They would in fact fill the sky. These are the things that grab my attention, that pull at my heart strings. A simple, seven-word sentence can be so incredibly impactful. Easily overlooked, but if the time is taken to stop and think, just for a few seconds, that sentence can contain a world of meaning. This is not the only place that this phenomenon occurs in this novel. It is prevalent throughout. Each time I reread
The Book Thief

Within the storyline itself, words are given great attention. One of the first words to be emphasized in the novel is ‘Communist.’ Liesel’s biological mother was a Communist, a detail that Liesel did not know, but eventually figures out. Before Liesel makes the connection between the Communists and her mother, she does not understand what the word itself means. “And that word [Communist]. That strange word was always there somewhere, standing in the corner, watching from the dark.” The personification given to the word ‘Communist’ is a well-used tool throughout The Book Thief. I love it because it gives the words more meaning, and provides a unique understanding of how words impact our lives.

The added attention to the importance of words in the story is also used to explain the difficulty of expressing ourselves through words.

            When Liesel left that day, she said something with great uneasiness. In translation, two giant words were struggled with, carried on her shoulder, and dropped as a bungling pair….They fell off sideways as the girl veered with them and could no longer sustain their weight. Together, they sat on the floor, large and loud and clumsy.

Those two giant words were, “I’m sorry.” This is another aspect of the wonderful way that words are described in this book. I love the effect that the words have. Words do not actually drop, or fall off shoulders, but sometimes they can carry enough weight that they appear to. I have had experiences where I struggle to say something that I know needs to be said, and eventually the words do drop and sit there clumsily on the floor. The beautiful thing about this novel is the way that everything is described. The author, Markus Zusak, finds a way to explain the small things about life that appear to be impossible to explain. The attention to detail is why I love this book as much as I do.

Words can also be gifts. The three-word phrase, ‘I love you’ can be a tremendous gift when said by a small child. A phrase I treasure each time my siblings utter it. This aspect of words is also pointed out and wonderfully described in The Book Thief. “It was as though he’d opened her palm, given her the words, and closed it up again.” While words can be gifts, they can also be piercing daggers that can render us incapacitated. Both sides are represented in The Book Thief. Words as gifts are shown through the previous quote spoken by Max Vanderburg, and a sharp quote is shown when Hans Hubermann explains the consequences of their situation (hiding a Jew) to Liesel.

“For starters…I will take each and every one of your books – and I will burn them….I’ll throw them in the stove or the fireplace….Next…they’ll take you away from me….They’ll drag that man up there away, and maybe Mama and me, too – and we will never, ever come back.” 

Liesel’s reaction expresses the terrifying feelings that harsh words can create. 

“The shock made a hole in her, very neat, very precise.”

The cruelty that can come with words can hurt. It can create an immense pit inside you that does not subside easily. Words are powerful. They can bring beauty and wonder or they can bring despair and misery. I understood the power of words before reading The Book Thief, but this novel simply reinforced their abilities.

The Book Thief is at the top of my list of favorite books. The storyline itself is intriguing, but the beauty and wonder of the novel comes from the words. Words are magical. They can do so many things and in so many wonderful ways. They bring joy and love, but they can also bring fear and hate. I rediscovered the power of words when I first read The Book Thief and with each subsequent reading that discovery is reinforced. Within the novel, Liesel discovers words. She discovers their beauty and the influence that they can have. Her lessons are passed on to the reader as they delve into her story. “When she [Liesel] came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the book and the words started to mean not just something, but everything.”


  1. It seems the power and presence of description in The Book Thief certainly add to the depth of the book. Very impressive choice! You helped me feel why you would be enchanted by the book.

    Do you think your final analysis of the book will be based on diction and word choice? You could certainly tie it into the content of the story itself, since it's based on words and books. Whichever method you choose, since you love the book I'm sure you'll do fine!

  2. I love that you focus so heavily on words. There is a lot to be said with how Carroll uses words in the Alice in Wonderland series, and I'm excited to see how you incorporate Death's word choice. It'll be interesting to compare the two time periods too, and see how word play has changed.