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moving under skies

NYRB Classics collector. Reads anything, so long as it's good. Sometimes historian. Frequently grumpy:  you've been warned. Also at aliceunderskies.tumblr.com. 

The Book Thief

The Book Thief - Trudy White, Markus Zusak

I know it's (maybe, possibly, at least in the US) considered a young adult novel, therefore exempting it somewhat from complexity; and I know it's based on Zusak's mother's experiences, therefore prone to nostalgic washes--I know these things, but they do not change my dislike of this book. Simply put, this book displays such stunning moral simplification that it strikes me as downright offensive, if not dangerous. The tone is so rosy as to feel revisionist: all Germans (save one or two Bad Germans, characters are cardboard as the Good) are basically nice, good people who might not all love Jews but certainly wouldn't hurt them, antisemitism is glossed over, life in the town is really quite idyllic despite the hardships of war.* That's problematic, broadly-drawn stereotype number one. The second is that the sole Jewish character is less an actual person than a plot point; he's like the Jewish version of the Magical Negro trope. If those two dire simplifications weren't problematic enough, consider this: the book is narrated by Death. Who, if I recall correctly, openly admits that he cares much more about the story of a one girl, is more affected by the death of her (not-Jewish) brother than by the entire death-tolls of the Holocaust and of World War Two. So, uh, these two characters are soooo special and magically important that their story totally eclipses the entire Holocaust, huh? Choosing Death as a narrator is gimicky, yes, which is never good, but moreover it's hugely problematic: it makes this a Holocaust story rather than a girlhood-in-Nazi-Germany story, and as a Holocaust story The Book Thief fails utterly on every level.I probably wouldn't be so very piqued at all of this if not for the fact that people have actually suggested that this (fictional! contemporary! totally fraught and problematic!) piece is on par with the (true! important historical document! amazing!) diary of Anne Frank or Wiesel's Night, that it could and should be used as an equally effective tool to teach the Holocaust to children. Really, words fail me at this idea; it seems so clearly mistaken to me.*I do not think that all Germans are or were evil--I hardly believe in the stark black/white, good/evil dichotomy anyway--but at the same time not all of them were pillars of innocence. I've been rather unclear about this complaint because I don't want to condemn myself to spoiler tags: simply put, the ending of the book hijacks the reader's sympathies and completely changes the focus of the book. This move might be okay, might not be horribly offensive in contrast to the devastation of the Holocaust--it's true that the German people suffered plenty as well, after all--if Zusak hadn't narrated it by Death and thus explicitly placed it within the context of the Holocaust. For a more nuanced view, I'd steer adult readers to Hans Fallada's "Every Man Dies Alone," a book written by a man who, you know, actually lived through the war instead of hearing about it secondhand and who devastatingly presents the dilemma of the everyday German citizen during the war. Young Adults should stick with classics by people who were actually there: the aforementioned Anne Frank and Eli Wiesel are revered for good reason.