The prologue in its entirety:
a mountain range of rubble
in which our narrator introduces:
himself—the colors—and the book thief
This clever opening raises a number of questions. What does a mountain of rubble have to do with the narrator, and what does the narrator have to do with colors and the book thief?
The prime directive of a story's opening lines is to draw in a reader. Zusak has accomplished that in a masterful manner.
The title of Chapter One is Death and Chocolate. Again, a question is embedded in this simple title. What does death have to do with chocolate? To get the answer requires reading the next line.
First the colors.
Then the humans.
That's usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
This again conveys the POV of this novel will be unusual. It also raises other questions, what would happen if the narrator saw the human first, then the color? Interesting questions. To get the answers we, again, have to keep reading.
* * * HERE IS A SMALL FACT * * *
You are going to die.
In my writing workbook A Story is a Promise I write about my 0-5-10 scale. To avoid being obvious (a five), struggling writers often go toward being obscure. Zusak is going toward being suggestive, hinting here about the true nature of the narrator. But he can hint because he knows the nature of the narrator, just as a mystery author generally has to understand the clues to leave at the beginning of a novel.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, thought most people find themselves hindered in believing in me, no matter my protestation. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
The narrator is now offering more detail. Note, the detail is still suggestive, and continues to draw the reader forward.
* * * REACTIONS TO THE * * *
Does this worry you?
I urge you, don't be afraid.
I'm nothing if not fair.
...Of course, an introduction.
Where are my manners?
I could introduce myself properly, but it's not really necessary.
The reason it's not necessary, as the clues mount, is that the narrator is Death. Death is giving an overview of its existence in this three page introduction.
As the chapter moves forward, Death talks about his need of a distraction so he won't be too aware of the survivors left behind as he carries away the souls of the dead.
To conclude the chapter:
Which in turns brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight, or today, or whatever the hour and color. It's the story of one of those perpetual survivors—an expert at being left behind.
It's just a small story really about, among other things:
*Some fanatical Germans
*A Jewish fist fighter
*And quite a lot of thievery
I saw the book thief three times.
This unusual novel opening conveys in a mysterious, engaging way who the narrator is, and who will be the main character of the novel, the book thief.
If we want to know more, we have to turn the page.
Every hugely popular storyteller finds a way to engage readers or viewers and draw them forward.
Everything in The Book Thief speaks to Zusak's intent as a storyteller.
When I'm shown a weakly written opening to a novel in a workshop, I will have the novel's opening read line by line asking, what is this a story about? I'm trying to point out the difference between that and a well-told story.
Novels like The Book Thief are wonderful examples of the storyteller's art.
A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.