In the hands of Australian writer Markus Zusak, Death is a surprisingly enjoyable omniscient narrator. Sure, Death does his job, and unapologetically so: "I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. . . . Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me."
In Zusak's latest young adult novel, The Book Thief, Death doesn't gleefully gather up the newly dead. Rather, he's resigned to the fact that he can never take a vacation, and he learns to cope with pained leftover humans by acutely observing and eloquently describing the colors that saturate the sky when he carries away a soul.
Zusak, author of four previous teen novels (including 2006 Printz Honor Book I Am the Messenger), put aside his house-cleaning chores to talk with BookPage from his home in Sydney. He says of The Book Thief, "When I first started writing, Death was a lot more macabre; he was enjoying himself too much. Nine months later, I thought of the last line [of the book] and decided that was the way to do it. It would be ironic: we're so scared of death, but what if it was the other way around as well?" Thus, Death infuses his storytelling with equal parts wit and compassion, and a keen interest in young Liesel Meminger: he is fascinated when she steals a copy of The Grave Digger's Handbook from her brother's gravesite. She carries that book with her to her new foster home, and it is the first in a series of thefts and literary explorations. As Liesel's world becomes ever more strange and frightening, books steady her and stealing (from a Nazi book-burning, from the mayor's wife's library) empowers her, even as her friends are recruited for Hitler Youth and her family hides a Jewish man, Max, in their basement. Her books are her secret, and even Hitler's footmen cannot take away the stories she so eagerly absorbs.
The author's parents grew up in WWII Europe and throughout his childhood told and retold stories of these years. "Two stories really affected me," he explains. "My mother talked about Munich being bombed. Everything was red, and the sky was on fire. The other was about seeing Jewish people being marched to Dachau. A boy ran out to give a man piece of bread, and a soldier whipped both the man and the boy. I thought I'd write a 100-page novella around those incidents, but the research started building until I had a whole other mass of things."
The Book Thief grew to 500-plus pages, but Zusak's unusual, compelling tale renders page count irrelevant. Comedy takes turns with suspense and sadness, and even as the family's security is steadily eroded, they create music and art. The text is dotted with bold-faced pronouncements from Death that offer reassurance or inspire contemplation, but the book does not fall prey to sentimentality. Harrowing events are allowed to be so, and interludes of joy are all the more powerful because of the characters' need for even mere filaments of hope. Zusak says the book is " five percent truth, and 95 percent made up," with some characters loosely based on those who populated his parents' stories. He never went to Germany as a child, he says, "but I knew scenes almost word for word, and wrote them as I pictured them growing up. Last year, I went to Germany to check everything. I did interviews and researched until I couldn't stand it anymore. Research doesn't come naturally to me in the end, I'm dying to write the story."
In fact, a pivotal vignette within The Book Thief, about Liesel and Max, energized Zusak even after he'd reread the book countless times during the three years it took to write it. "When I was sick and tired of the entire thing, that one story within the others made me think the book was worth publishing." After all, he points out, " It's the little stories that define us, our existence. And Death is trying to find stories that indicate we're worth it. We are our stories."
Linda Castellitto writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.