I have done a lot of reading this weekend, or at least a lot for me. First of all I had to finish The Book Thief for my high school book club class on Monday. Then I looked at my library list and realized that Firmin was due back on Monday and I could not renew because of previous holds. So, I very quickly started Firmin last night and finished it this afternoon. While on the surface these two books may seem totally unrelated: a young girl in Nazi, Germany vs a literary rat in 1960 Boston — both books excel in illustrating the power – and poetry – of words.
From the moment I started The Book Thief, I knew that I would want to re-read the book at least once, but probably numerous times. It took me a while to get into the book, mostly, I think, because I had envisioned “death’s” point of view to be vastly different from what it was in the novel. I expected death to be evil – sinister – giddy in his accomplishments; but instead, I found this death to be observant, compassionate and questioning humanity. While the story is told from death’s perspective, he does focus on a young girl, Liesel, for most of the narrative. He meets Liesel when her brother dies on the train, and he continually “runs into her” as he performs his duty in war-torn Germany.
While this book is quite deserving of a full-length review, I prefer to cut it short and leave the reader with this thought from the author: “I like the idea that every page in a book can have a gem on it.” That is precisely what this book has. Each and every page has a minimum of one eloquent passage or beautiful word picture that causes the reader to pause and reflect. In fact, a major theme of the story is the power of words:
“…the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. ‘I will never fire a gun,’ he devised, ‘I will not have to.’…..He planted (words) day and night, and cultivated them. He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany. It was a nation of formed thoughts. While the words were growing, our young Fuhrer also planted seeds to create symbols, and these, too, were well on their way to full bloom. Now the time had come.” – page 445
How I wish I could make my students understand this premise. Words are everything. Words can build others up – or tear them down. Words, when cultivated and arranged in just the perfect order, can cause miracles to happen. At the same time, words haphazardly strung together with no thought or effort can lead to devastation. I think there is no other pithy saying that is most inaccurate as: “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names (words) will never hurt me.” Words hurt more than swords, and have a much longer lasting effect.
While Firmin is not nearly as intense in theme or scope as The Book Thief, I must say it was a very pleasurable read and one filled with unsuspecting poetic prose and at times deep insight. The story is told in first person from a rat’s point of view. Firmin is the 13th baby rat born in the basement of a Boston used bookstore. Firmin is the runt of the litter, and oftentimes misses out on mealtime at Mom’s milk bar. In an effort to thwart his hunger, Firmin begins to eat the shredded paper that his mom has used for a nest. The paper happens to be from one of the used books – and an appetite for literature is born (quite literally). Firmin devours several different books – from a variety of genres – until he realizes the value of the words on the page when read. Firmin then becomes quite discriminating in his taste: he now will only eat the margins of the book in order to savor the written word.
Because of this early introduction to great literature, Firmin seems to relate all sensory perception through stories he has read. This provides great humor for the reader. For example, on his first taste of lettuce, Firmin compares it to Jane Eyre. Upon realizing that he will not be the apple of Ginger Rogers’ eye, he takes it upon himself to change his name to Heathcliff. It was moments like these that the narration had me literally laughing out loud.
However, one of the most poignant moments of the story is delivered on the next-to-the-last-page: “Jerry used to say that if you didn’t want to live your life over again, then you had wasted it.” Quite the sobering thought for a city rat. I have always tried to live my life without regrets, but somehow this quote manages to concisely express those same thoughts in a more eloquent manner.
I would highly recommend this book as well. It is an easy read, but at the same time a very satisfying read. Who would have thought a literary rat would provide such entertainment?