Tuesday, June 26, 2007

My Thoughts on “The Book Thief” and Ethnic Cleansing

This will be my final blog entry with my summary of my impressions and my opinions of the book “The Book Thief”. I blogged a little about my reading of” The Book Thief in these two former blog entries:

Currently Reading “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak

I Did Finish “The Book Thief”

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Marcus Zusak
ISBN-10: 0375842209 (paperback)
ISBN-13: 978-0375842207 (paperback)

I read this book to myself, it was not read to my children (aged 7 and 9.5) and my reading it had nothing to do with the fact that I homeschool my children.

It was either sixth or seventh grade, in my public school, when we were assigned to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” in “Language Arts” class. We had no former exposure to the fact that the Holocaust occurred. I had no clue that such a thing as genocide (ethnic cleansing) existed. I knew nothing about World War II. Reading the book at that point really changed me and opened my eyes to realize this world was not what I thought it was. I remember thinking at that point that the book opened my eyes in a way that made me realize my former notions of the world were wrong and na├»ve. Now I would say that I wish the book was not read until a little later as it really did shift my perspective and I’m not sure that was necessary at that age. Now that I know the world is so complex I wish all children could hold onto their innocent just a bit longer.

Reading the book opened my eyes to a serious evil that did happen in our world and I was shocked and disgusted. I emotionally connected with Anne’s story and I remember crying while reading it. I was left with a sense of wanting justice and hoping for world peace and wished the world could be robbed of all evil.

Also I want to add that looking back I find it odd that there was no link with reading that book in “Language Arts” class to learning about history. The book was important to read and I do with that every person in the world would read the book.

I remember seeing a documentary about Anne Frank when I was in my early 20s, on television. I got curious about Anne Frank again and re-read the diary and again made a strong emotional connection. I wondered what kind of society could let that happen and also wondered if all the Germans were truly in agreement with what Hitler was doing.

I also had the fortunate experience to tour the home where Anne Frank and her family were sequestered when I visited Amsterdam in 1992. It was moving and quite an emotional experience.

As I blogged about previously, I had never heard of “The Book Thief” and just stumbled upon a brand new hardback edition at a library fundraiser sale and bought it for $1. When I read what the story was I quickly checked online and saw the book had rave reviews. One customer review on Amazon warned that some of the other reviews revealed the story too much so I stopped reading the reviews and immediately set about reading the book.

At first I was reading it at night and not staying up late. At some points in the beginning I felt the story was a bit slow. However I soon realized what was happening was we readers were being lured into making a strong emotional connection with the characters.

This book would be great to read after reading “The Diary of Anne Frank”. Although this is fiction it tells the other side of the story. Without ruining the story I can tell you it involves a German family who does not agree with Hitler and disapproves of the ethnic cleansing. It tells the story of a family who risks their lives to help a couple of people who would have been killed for being a Jew and a child whose father was a Communist.

By mid-book I was staying up too late to read the book, which is always a sign that a book is good reading. By the end I was clearing the schedule to make time to finish it. By the end I just had to find out what happened and so I read for a couple of hours at one stretch. I needed to not be interrupted and to just be with the book and the story and so I organized my children to do quiet time and independent reading so I could finish the book in peace and in solitude. I cried nearly through the last fifty pages and had to stop a couple of times to outright sob.

The book was published in Australia first, as the author is Australian, and it was published as an adult novel. After its initial success there it was published in America but the publisher determined they would market it as a “young adult” novel. Indeed this story is fine for teenagers.

Again I would recommend that first the reader already have read “The Diary of Anne Frank” then read this after. Ideally reading these books would be also timed with learning about the history of that time period so that the most understanding and appreciation for what was really going on in the world could take place.

As a parent you need to use your judgment about what aged child should read these stories. I will only say that if you yourself have read Anne Frank’s story and realize the emotional and tough to handle content you should use that to help you determine when your child should read first, Anne Frank’s story. Then after that is read and discussed I would advise to move on to “The Book Thief”. I don’t quite think it would be right or best to read “The Book Thief” first, perhaps because once a person has read a real, non-fiction account of what it is like to be the victim then to read a fictional representation of what it is like to try to protect a victim would be the right order of events.

I see no reason to push this content down to young children. A lot can be learned from both books and learning about the whole horrible history of The Holocaust. I see nothing good of exposing children too-early then having them not be able to grasp the big picture. I feel it is best to wait until they are mature enough to really, really “get it” then to expose them to this and get a bigger impact and impression of the whole thing.

If you are an adult who has read Anne Frank’s story and if you want a good read that will make you think I think you would enjoy this as a read but more than that, it is yet another book that will leave a long-lasting impression on you. I am finding less and less works of fiction that really move me and seem worthwhile to spend my time reading. “The Book Thief” is definitely a must-read.

This book would also be good for adult book clubs to read as there are some good discussions that can come from reading this story. I predict it will be a future “Oprah Book Club” selection as I strongly suspect that this story would really move Oprah and the topic is one that I think she would like more people to be sensitive about.

One last thing, somehow in public school I was under the impression that The Holocaust with the first and only occasion of ethnic cleansing. I was led to believe, perhaps due to pure omission, due to gaps in the public education history “scope and sequence” that ethnic cleansing has not happened since the end of the Nazi regime and since World War II ended. Despite reading and being on the Internet and reading some newspapers and magazines I somehow had not known that ethnic cleansing was still going on until the 1990s arrived and I heard tidbits in the news about the Serbs.

I find it appalling that ethnic cleanings is still going on but even worse, that somehow in the public education system even today, children are not being taught a more complete course of history including not just an education of The Holocaust and how horrible that was but to carry it forward to explain that although The Holocaust is long over the terrible act of ethnic cleansing is still going on today. I feel we need to learn history to help us see what went wrong in the past and how we don’t want to do certain things in the present or the future.

However to shock school children with The Holocaust then to not tell them that the general act of ethnic cleansing is still going on seems criminal to me and that leads the children to believe the world today is actually a better and “reformed” place, or that it is a “more civilized” place than it actually is. The fact of the matter is that if everyone in the world is in agreement that ethnic cleansing is bad, it would not be happening. I think children should know that these issues are still happening in our world and perhaps some will then work toward affecting some change, you never know! In the very least we may have more young American citizens who have more empathy and a more realistic outlook on the state of affairs in the world and that can’t be a bad thing.

For more information on ethnic cleaning: Wikipedia entry Ethnic Cleansing

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Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I am going to the library today to get this book! Thanks for the heads up!

With respect to a scope and sequence that puts the Shoah (holocaust) into a larger picture of the history of ethnic cleansing, consider: Facing History and Ourselves. It is taught in some schools and also in religious school contexts.

Danielle said...

I am a public school teacher and I loved this book, not only for its history, but for the unique perspective from which it is told--not only does "death" tell the story, but the story itself is about a young girl who comes of age in Nazi Germany. It's all refreshingly different from the more common stories of holocaust vicitms.

I considered teaching this novel as a small part of a unit entitled "perspecitives" or merely for its literary craft--a wonderful piece of prose-poetry--what beautiful language!!!

On a separate note, please know that I and other teachers at my school teach a "civil war" unit that co-incides with students' study of the American Civil War. However, we don't even touch the American Civil War; instead we read literature from Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan (Darfur), Ireland, Cambodia, and other places that have experienced more recent civil wars. We learn about the genocides that have happened since World War II, and that are happening now. We had Bosnian war refugees, several Lost Boys of Sudan, and Political Asylees from the Central African Republic come to visit and give incredible presentations to our kids. Just so you know . . . some public school teachers do try to broaden our students' concepts of important ideas--not that we do everything right, but we do try!

Thanks for a mother's perspective on The Book Thief.

caitlin said...

I read the book thief in 2006, it had absolutely the same affect on me as it did you. When i was in my local library, the cover immediatley jumped out at me, and i had to read it. up to that point, the only book that had been able to reduce me to tears was Marley and Me, so i thought i was a strong emotional reader...boy was i ever wrong! I cried like a baby when Lesil kissed Rudy, it was such an unexpected ending...they should have been able to live happily ever after! well, this last summer i went to Germany, and the only book i even thought about bringing was The Book Thief...i recomend it to any and every one!

ChristineMM said...

So, this is now a movie, and it was released today! I can't wait to see the movie.