Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
This story of a young girl in Nazi Germany during World War II was the other great historical novel that I read at the end of last year, cover to cover in one go on a transatlantic flight. The most important thing I can tell you about it may be that even though the narrator tells you how the book will end on page 22, and reminds you a couple more times during the course of the book, I still had no power to stop tears streaming down my face at the end.
There are two big ideas in this book. The first is about the dangerous and beautiful power of story telling, and the way story shapes action, for better or for worse. The second, and more interesting, is about the consequences of these actions. The heroes of this book perform with the best of intentions acts which sometimes have very good ends, and sometimes very tragic. It struck me today as a result of a conversation about something quite different, that Zusak’s attention to this problem of our actions and their results may be derived from the way Hannah Arendt connects freedom to action. The characters are only free when they act, when Eric Vandenburg protects Hans Huberman from battle, when Hans gives bread to a prisoner from Dachau, when Leisel Meminger writes a book in the basement.
This book commands us to do good even in the worst circumstances, not because doing good will change the world and make it good, but because doing good and not just thinking good, knowing good, and believing good, is the only way to be free. In a culture that believes anything is possible if you only try hard enough, this message may resound as pessimistic, but I found it intensely hopeful.