In this month's Inspirations from the Bookshelf, Kate Walker tells us what she learned from Markus Zusak's
The Book Thief.


I remember reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak in my early 20s on my commute to work, and continuing to read it as I walked from the station along Waterloo bridge, meandering though the cobbled streets of Covent Garden to my then office off Drury Lane. Colleagues would walk past me; I wouldn’t say hello because I wouldn’t notice them. It became an office joke.


The Book Thief is unusually narrated by Death, and follows a young girl called Liesel through her life in Nazi Germany after Death takes her family before the SS could. Liesel is saved to live with foster parents who come to love her in their idiosyncratic and structured way.


I studied Nazi Germany extensively at UEA, spending hours poring over thick volumes of Noakes and Pridham – A Documentary Reader – and until recently I never understood why people were duped by Hitler. Why they bought into his shouty rants that I watched in grainy black and white footage. I knew the political and social factors, but he was such an angry man that it seemed obvious to student me that his hatred would spill out everywhere. Hatred-fueled politics have recently roared into our world again. Now I see how easily it is accepted, a slow creep, the opposition quashed with slogans and empty mantras, just as it was in Liesel’s Germany, so these themes have never gone away.

The Book Thief explores how a society can be gripped by an ideology, how people feed it and expand it, until it consumes life like an aggressive cancer. The story plunges us into domestic life and the loss of life from a German perspective, a child’s perspective as viewed, in fascination, by Death personified. This is so different from the UK narrative as “war winners” and the double switch in perspective was alluring. The “there but for fortune go I”, and knowing that death comes for us all, asks the question of what will you stand for before your time is up?


The format of the book is also off-kilter. Each new segment lists what will be covered at the start, but by the end of each one I was so immersed that I forgot this, with plot points that surprised, shocked, repulsed or gave me hope. The insignificant child in a broken setting shows such heart and bravery to save another soul, just slipped from childhood himself, only to see him ripped from hiding into certain death. Liesel’s feeling of crushing defeat, powerlessness, and horror at the authoritarian stranglehold on her life, her town, her fear of who she can trust seeped unwittingly into my WIP, a book I never intended to write at all. Although in my book there is a character who works with the resistance to save Jewish children, a secret extension of the Kindertransport, which offers more hope to children without the full horror of the industrial scale murder in Nazi Germany. However, it’s Zusak’s unusual format, the blunt narrative, the tinge of otherworldliness and the blurring of lines between reality and the vapours of the afterlife that really grabbed my attention. This showed me that there’s not one way or formula to write. That rules and narratives can be broken, flawed and flipped to show readers another perspective on something they thought they already knew. That struck me as both powerful and ambitious, but not in the way Hitler craved, more like the spirit to take on challenges, the difficult, almost impossible projects that no-one thinks will succeed. But sometimes they do.


Inspiring, like the recent Mars probe that shares this spirit, showing ingenuity and charisma to the world with a deliciously secret code on the underside of the parachute on its descent to the surface, like a sweet rebellion against conformity. When deciphered it read “Dare mighty things.”


Even if you fail, at least you tried something extraordinary, that’s exciting and what makes life worth fighting for. That’s why we write for children after all, to show them how things could be, to embrace different, to let them dream and empathise. We need to inspire children to be courageous and fight the darkness in the everyday landscape and in fantastical worlds. We write the spark of hope in a crisis. To see the truth, even if it is ugly, so better things can be built their way without the restriction of a set narrative.


The Book Thief was the first book to make tears pour down my cheeks. I'd always loved books, but I had no intention to write one of my own. I didn’t even know that writing for children was an option back in my 20s, reading as I walked through London to my conventional office job. It was an evolution unlocked by the death of my father that made me write. Death is an interesting character and in life it doesn’t always mean an ending. In fact, death can be quite compassionate and inspiring at times, if you look at it from a different angle.

 * All images by Kate Walker

Kate Walker is a regular contributor to Words & Pictures.

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