Few films have been able to capture my heart as completely as The Book Thief, based on the 2005 prize winning novel by Markus Zusak. This is the story of an illiterate girl sent to live with a foster family that is hiding a Jew from the Nazis.
Max, the young Jewish man, tells young Liesel that his people believe that words create the life of a thing. They are truly alive when there are words for them. I couldn’t agree more.
To see the main character discover words and the power they brought to the human spirit stirred long dormant feelings. I had escaped into words from the time I could understand them. Books were the one thing I was never denied. Reading someone else’s words strung together like lights on a Christmas tree, twisted onto its branches, and reflecting off sparkling ornaments transported me from my troubled existence to a places of dreams and delight. They created stories that didn’t necessarily have to sound pretty or set scenes of beauty and happiness, but took me on a journey, discovering people embroiled in situations far more fantastic or difficult than any I would encounter.
I’ve often wondered about people who didn’t love to read the way I did. I’ve even felt sad that they missed out on amazing knowledge because they never opened the door that is the cover of a book – or in the 21st century, the screen of a digital device. I remember being taught the proper care of a book — how to make a homemade jacket out of a paper grocery bag to keep the cover pristine; how to open the cover for the first time without damaging the binding; and how to handle the crisp pages as if each were one of a kind and carried an ancient secret.
Leisel read far deeper works than I did at her age. As a child I identified with animal stories. Animals, like children, have no choices. I remember falling in love with Elsa, the lioness, in Born Free and seeing a larger Africa than I’d seen on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on Sunday night television. Black Beauty and National Velvet took me to England and showed me another side of humanity. Books were my greatest treasure. Still are. Although I’m not the hoarder I used to be. I find more satisfaction in sharing them.
Words gave me a life I wouldn’t have known without reading. Stories freed my mind to travel far beyond my home. Leisel lived during the most atrocious time in our history and words gave her power to survive the unimaginable.
Words give life to our language, our emotions, our history, and our daily lives. Burning them, as they did in Leisel’s time, was nothing short of murder. When she plucked a smoldering title from the ashes, hiding it in her coat, she was saving the lives of the author, his characters, and herself.