The Book Thief
Author: Marcus Zusak
Winner: Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (South East Asia & South Pacific), 2006; Horn Book Fanfare, 2006; Kirkus Reviews Editor Choice Award, 2006; School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, 2006; Daniel Elliott Peace Award, 2006; Publishers Weekly Best Children Book of the Year, 2006; Booklist ChildrenEditors’ Choice, 2006; Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book, 2006; Boeke Prize, 2007; ALA Best Books for Young Adults, 2007; Michael L. Printz Honor Book, 2007; Book Sense Book of the Year, 2007; Pacific Northwest Young Readers Choice Master List, 2009
New York Times (Children’s) Bestseller (over 100 weeks)
Original Publication: 2005
Genre: Fiction (Historical), Children’s Fiction
The story begins in 1939 Germany, just before the escalation of WWII. Nine-year old Liesel Meminger and her little brother, Werner, are being sent to live with German foster parents because their mother is too poor and sick to care for them and their father is a Communist. Werner dies on the train on the way over, and Liesel and her mother temporarily disembark in order to bury him. Liesel spies a book lying in the snow near her brother’s grave and picks it up, despite the fact that she is illiterate. As she settles into her new life, her gentle foster father, Hans, slowly teaches her how to read from her stolen book, and Liesel’s love for words is born.
As the war escalates, Liesel and her best friend Rudy Steiner begin to steal not only food for their hungry bellies but a book here or there as well, which Liesel reads aloud in the bomb shelter during air raids to entertain her friends and neighbors. One day, a young Jewish man appears on their doorstep. Hans and Rosa take him in, no questions asked, and Liesel is forced to re-think her foster mother’s gruff exterior. (When Liesel arrived, screeching and clinging to the garden gate, Rosa stomped outside and dispelled the staring neighbors with a barked “What are you assholes looking at?”) If the authorities learned that Liesel’s family were Jewish sympathizers, it would of course be disastrous. As it turns out, however, both Hans and Rudy’s father Alex are on the short list of those who annoy the authorities, and both men are sent to war.
One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is that it is told from the point of view of Death or, quite literally, The Grim Reaper. If one wanted to be extra morbid, one could surmise that if there were anyone who was around quite a lot and observing during any particular period of time, it would be Death during The Holocaust. Death explains that there are certain humans that he takes special notice of, and that he first saw Liesel when he came for her brother’s soul and witnessed her stealing her first book. Dubbing her “The Book Thief”, Death keeps an eye on her throughout her life as he comes for other people that she is close to. Along the way, he shares tidbits about the other people in the story and reveals their characters. What I thought was particularly fascinating is that Death is typically depicted as a sinister creature. In this novel, Death is not good or evil, or associated with being taken to heaven or hell; he simply IS. Death sympathizes with the human race and speaks of gently liberating their souls from their bodies; gathering them into his arms. He speaks of the concentration camps: “When I get near, they can smell me. All of them beg for one of two things: For me to take them with me, or for me to leave them alone. It doesn’t matter which they pray for. I only gather those for whom I came [paraphrased].”
Another aspect I enjoyed was the author’s use of unexpected metaphors. Each one is carefully chosen in order to give you a particular mental picture. The comparisons are so odd as to be nonsensical if read literally, but so deliberately selected that one knows exactly what the author means by each. Examples: “The sun broke through the sky like God sitting down after having too much for dinner.” “His hair was twigs; his beard a ball and chain.” “She was a wardrobe of a woman; looking like someone had simply wrapped a piece of furniture in a wool coat.” [All slightly paraphrased.] At any rate, I very much enjoyed the colorful metaphors. I wondered if they had been chosen specifically to illustrate an older child’s first learning to read, write, and love the power of words. A child would describe any number of things much more vividly than an adult. I saw Liesel in my mind envisioning her foster Mother as a waddling chest of drawers in a coat.
Fun Fact: A movie version has been announced. Michael Petroni (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) is slated to write the screenplay. The cast has not yet been announced.
Bother If: I thought this was a very good read. I did not realize that it was a children’s novel until I read the back – I had been meaning to read it at the behest of several adult friends who enjoyed it. I believe that it would be appropriate for ages 12 and up. Another thing I liked about The Book Thief is that the foster parents were not cruel. When the first scene in the novel had Liesel being torn away from her mother, I dreaded that the story might veer into a typical “wicked stepmother” scenario. The author wisely decided that Nazi Germany during WW2 was quite bleak enough without adding abusive parents. I even teared up in a few places. The details and plot points which made this such a good story were not given away above, so it’s certainly worth a read if your interest was piqued. It also beautifully illustrates the power of words, for both good and evil.
Don’t Bother If: The novel does not contain overt violence or sex, and most of the coarse language is in German. Many of the heartbreaking details are filled in by the reader – because of our knowledge of the Holocaust, we have some idea of the horrifying enormity of the situation. That said, it is necessarily dark due to its subject matter. It is an engrossing story, but not at all a cheery one. I can see reading this if one is in the mood to have their heart broken a little – which is occasionally just the case.