Day 1300: Munich

Cover for MunichRobert Harris’s newest book, Munich, takes place during four days in September 1938, during which England’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, met with Hitler, Mussolini, and the President of France to try to avoid war over Czechoslavakia. Or at least Chamberlain was trying to prevent war. As he has done before, Harris manages to create suspense around an event the outcome of which we already know.

He does this by introducing two characters, friends from Oxford who are now diplomats. Hugh Legat is a junior secretary for the Prime Minister. Paul von Hartmann is in the German foreign ministry, but he is also a member of a group who would like to bring down Hitler. The group asks him to attempt to encourage a strong response from England on the Sudetenland issue by leaking secret German aspirations in Europe to England through his friendship with Hugh. The group believes that if war is declared, the German army will stop Hitler.

This mission is a dangerous one for Hartmann, who already has one SS officer on his tail. Meanwhile, Hugh in trying to be a liaison is continually stymied by orders from his jealous boss.

I felt a little more detached from this one than I usually do for Harris’s work. It depicts Chamberlain, though, as a much more determined and politically savvy man than he is believed to be now. I get the feeling that Harris, who states in the afterword that he has been fascinated by this meeting for years, wants to show Chamberlain in a more positive light than history generally affords him.

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Day 487: The Book Thief

Cover for The Book ThiefLiesel Meminger is nine years old when she arrives at a house in a poor street near Munich. Her mother has given her and her brother up to a foster family because she cannot support them, but her little brother died on the train on the way there. She is dirty and illiterate, and when she arrives at the house of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, she has to be coaxed to come inside.

Although the Hubermanns prove to be loving parents and Hans eventually teaches Liesel to read, it is 1939 in Nazi Germany. Slowly, the difficulties of living in the Third Reich and the hardships of war will affect everyone she knows.

Liesel has already stolen her first book, when a grave digger dropped it the night her brother died. She steals her second book from a fire on the night of a book burning, for small and even large acts of defiance have become a part of her nature.

Zusak depicts a vivid life within Liesel’s little community. The boy that becomes her best friend, Rudy Steiner, has already distinguished himself before they meet by covering himself with soot and pretending to be Jesse Owens during the 1936 Olympics. Hans Hubermann is a failing painter and virtuoso accordion player who is ultimately too kind for his own good. His gruff wife Rosa shows her inner kindness by forcing people to eat her dreadful soup.

The novel is told by Death, which acts as an omniscient narrator, sometimes telling the back story, sometimes giving a glimpse of the future. At the beginning of the book, I thought I was going to find this irritating. By the middle of the book, I was wondering if it added anything that a traditional narrator wouldn’t provide. By the end, I thought it was effective. One little quirk of style that bothered me a little, though, was that Zusak occasionally creates his own words when perfectly good ones that are very similar already exist, like lovelily instead of lovely. I think this is an affectation that adds little to the novel.

The Book Thief accomplishes an unusual goal—to show that there were decent Germans during World War II. One of the kind and dangerous things that Hans Hubermann does is shelter a Jew, Max Vandenburg, in his basement for months. Liesel’s relationship with Max forms a core part of the story.

This novel is involving and affecting. It does have a few difficult scenes, but I think that it is a very readable experience for tweens, teens, and older readers. It has been wildly popular, so obviously readers are enjoying it.