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Death Becomes Him

The Grim Reaper works overtime in a new WWII novel.


In The Book Thief, Markus Zusak tells the story of a little girl dodging Death in 1939 Germany. Yes, Death. The Grim Reaper is not only a main character, but also the narrator of his new book. "Death is everywhere during war," says Zusak. "When I first started writing, he was sinister. He enjoyed his work too much. Then I thought, What if Death is afraid of us, because of all the destruction he sees us deliver? That was the irony I needed. Death tells the story to prove to himself that humans are worthwhile."

He's got his work cut out for him. This is Nazi Germany, after all. Yet Zusak makes it a point to acknowledge the thousands of Germans who didn't support Hitler and who hid Jewish refugees in their basements. "Once I combined those stories with the [Nazis'] ruthless acts, I had what I needed," Zusak says. "It's a powerful combination of beauty and evil."

Zusak, an Australian, grew up hearing his parents' stories about their war-torn childhoods. Much of The Book Thief draws inspiration from their heroic and harrowing tales. "There was pure good and pure evil in the same breath," he says.
Fri., March 24, 7 p.m.

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