Eternal Observer: Death in The Book Thief

NOV / DEC 2017: BY JESSICA PRESCOTT

“I’m always finding humans at their best and worst.

“I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.

“Still, they have one thing I envy.

“Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die.”

If Death could speak… what would he say?

That’s the question asked by Markus Zusak’s bestselling coming-of-age novel, The Book Thief. It’s a story of bitter loss and even more bitter survival, narrated by the voice of Death and set in war-torn Germany during the 1940s. The protagonist, Death’s heroine, is a girl named Liesel Meminger; a girl who loses everyone she loves—mother, father, brother, foster parents, best friend—to the ravages of war. One by one, Death comes to take them away; and one by one, he bears their souls into eternity, leaving Liesel behind. Liesel wonders why it has to be this way. And Death has no answers.

That’s the real genius of Zusak’s work, I think: Death himself is baffled. He may be eternal, unchanging, the fixed constant in human life; but that doesn’t make him omniscient or even close to it. He’s observed human beings “at their best and worst,” since the dawn of time—yet human beings are still a mystery. And not just humanity itself; but everything humans do. Love is a mystery. Sin is a mystery. Suffering is a mystery. War is a mystery. Dying, too, is a mystery.

Ever wondered why we have to die? Well, I hate to break it to you, but Death wonders why, too. Death has been working at this same job for centuries, for millennia upon millennia; but if you think he’s gotten used to it, you’re wrong. He doesn’t know why we have to die, and he doesn’t know why he was chosen to carry out the sentence. Death doesn’t know how to comfort those left behind. He has no answer for the anger and frustration and desperate hatred they hurl at him; no way to give a semblance of meaning to the pain left in his wake. Only God can do that… and Death, no matter how often we confuse the two, is not God.

Yet Death never turns away from the human race. Oh, he may pretend not to care a straw about us mortals (the sheer snark and flippancy of his narration you must see to believe); but on a deeper level, he never stops trying to understand humanity. Trying to understand and trying to believe. That’s why he falls in love—for it is love, pure and simple—with Liesel Meminger; with her stubborn will to survive, and her stubborn thirst for beauty amidst the pain of wartime Germany, she gives him hope that human life might mean something. “She was one of the few souls,” he muses, “who made me wonder what it was to live.” And live she does. She steals books and skins her knees playing soccer. She reads aloud in bomb shelters. She beats up bullies. She swears like a sailor. She loves a boy with lemon-colored hair. She helps hide a Jewish man and builds him a snowman in the basement. She becomes a spark of joy; for Death, and for all of us.

And this makes it all the crueler when the end comes—when her neighborhood burns in a bombing raid, and Death arrives to take her Mama, her Papa, and her beloved Rudy. He’s only doing his job, and he has no choice… but oh, how it hurts. It bleeds. And it makes us ask, again, “why?”

Death has no answer. But he keeps on with his job, and he keeps on wondering, and hoping. And when he meets Liesel face-to-face, for the first and last time—when it’s her own time to die—he makes sure she knows something of what she meant to him. Maybe he does it clumsily; but at least he does it.

“I am haunted,” he tells her, “by humans.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott is a former homeschool student and current graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in American history with a focus on immigration studies.  In her (sadly limited) free time, she can usually be found listening to “Hamilton” or Celine Dion or Twenty One Pilots and dreaming up new ideas for historical fiction novels.  Which, she hopes, will someday make her famous.  Someday . . . 

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