Use of the Flashforward in The Book Thief

Here it is, my first ever blog entry.  The handsome gentleman pictured above is my best friend, Peter.  I feel like I need his support to launch this endeavor.  His snaggletooth gives me power…

I’ve promised a discussion of a book and the craft of its writing. Without any further ado, I give you my thoughts on The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.

First of all, why this book?  Well, why not?  It’s the book I just happen to be reading right now.  I’m on a quest to read all the Newbery and Printz Award winners and Honor books.  This book was a Printz Honor book in 2007.

There are a lot of interesting things to talk about in The Book Thief, which one would expect, given that it is a first-person narrative told by Death while at work in Germany during World War II and the Holocaust.  But this is a blog about the craft of writing, so I want to talk about how Zusak crafted this story; specifically, I want to talk about his use of “foreshadowing.”  I put the term in quotes because while the “reader’s guide” at the back of the book says that Zusak used the literary device of foreshadowing, I would call what he did something more akin to “flashforwarding.”

Foreshadowing to me is a little more vague than what Zusak did—my examples of foreshadowing include a symbolic animal’s visitation at a key moment in the story, or a hint dropped by a passing stranger.  Zusak’s Death, on the other hand, likes to open chapters by telling you exactly what will happen in the future.  For example, on page 12, Death describes the last time that he (it?) saw the book thief, which is a description of the last chapter of the book.  And it’s not exactly a vague portent—it’s a clear description of a bombing raid.  But it’s not a complete description; rather Death shares a juicy detail with the reader, a sketch of what’s to come.

Why would a writer do that, you might ask?  Doesn’t that give the whole story away?  Far from giving everything away, what details Zusak provides make you desperate to read on.  Death mentions that the book thief is holding a book—what book?  Why?  Why is Death compelled to pick that book up, to tell the story contained in its pages?  Zusak manages to create this tension over and over by providing the reader with theright details:  enough information for you to guess at what happens, and to make you desperate to find out how or why it does.

I think that this technique works well in historical novels like The Book Thief.  It’s not like a reader can’t Google World War II and find out what happened (though I really hope you know without having to Google it).  Even if you can’t Google what’s going to happen to fictional characters like those in The Book Thief, you can bet that if a Jew shows up, things are probably not going to turn out great for him.  So Zusak didn’t lose anything in providing juicy details up front.  And the technique, if done effectively, as Zusak has, adds suspense rather than dispels it.

To learn more about Markus Zusak and The Book Thief, check out his website.  (Check out his signature–Why does Zusak sign his name with such a large “K”?  I wonder if it’s because people often misspell his name (i.e. with a “C”)…  If so, I feel his pain!  As a kid, I always gave my name as “Day-na, WITH A Y!” because otherwise the person was bound to either misspell or mispronounce it.)

Next blog:  My thoughts on When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, the current Newbery Award Winner!  I recently met Stead at a reading and think she’s the coolest!  So definitely check out her books, and then read my next post!