The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

By Ekta R. Garg

April 4, 2012

Rated: Bookmark it!

If Death could convey in a human way what he saw, what would he have to say?  How would he relate to people the harsh reality he has to face on a daily basis, multiple times a day?  Does he enjoy his work?  Does he ever tire of it?  Just how does he manage it all?  And what about wartime—what does Death have to say about the atrocities humans commit against each other?  Using the Second World War as his backdrop, award-winning author Markus Zusak personifies Death and lets him narrate the story of a young girl named Liesel Meminger who witnesses firsthand the realities of Nazi Germany in the absolutely fantastic novel The Book Thief.

The book opens with Death offering readers a formal introduction of himself and explains that he has seen Liesel three times.  After a short description of all three instances, he launches into the main story by beginning with his first encounter with Liesel.  Liesel is traveling on a train with her mother and brother; her mother hopes to place the siblings in a foster home to keep them safe from the war.  But Liesel’s brother doesn’t survive the trip, and Liesel and her mother have the task of finding a place to bury him.  At the cemetery after the burial, Liesel sees something in the snow.  It’s a book with the title The Grave Digger’s Handbook, and although Liesel is illiterate something compels her to take the book.

With the book as the only physical remembrance she has of her brother’s burial, Liesel takes it with her to the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann on Himmel Street in the small town of Molching on the outskirts of Munich.  Liesel settles uneasily into life with them, calling them Mama and Papa, and fighting on a nightly basis the bad dreams about her brother’s death that taunt her.  When she wakes up screaming every night, she finds Hans there and the two form a beautiful father-daughter relationship as Hans comforts and emotionally sustains Liesel.

Eventually Hans finds The Grave Digger’s Handbook, and when he asks Liesel about the book she responds truthfully.  Hans realizes Liesel doesn’t know how to read, and he proceeds to teach her one letter and one word at a time.  The reading lessons create in Liesel an intense desire to read, and she begins looking for opportunities to steal books when she can.  In the late 1930s and early 1940s in Germany, simple things like books and fresh apples are hard to come by and Liesel doesn’t waste time on guilt.  Her new best friend, Rudy, becomes her partner in crime on many thieving outings, and the two share a friendship that always borders on love but never quite gets there.

Liesel seems to regain some semblance of a normal life, but the war keeps that idea as more illusion than anything else.  She joins the Hitler Youth as do all the German children on Himmel Street, but she also eyes with dismay the line of Jewish homes that German soldiers have destroyed.  When Hans has an opportunity to pay back a debt to an old friend—a Jewish friend—by hiding the friend’s son in the basement, he doesn’t hesitate to do the right thing.  And suddenly for Liesel, the war takes on new meaning.

Zusak’s prose almost literally will take your breath away.  He offers readers the most imaginative descriptions, and writers of any genre who read this book will most certainly think, “Why couldn’t have I written that?”  In describing the row of Jewish homes in Molching, Zusak says:

“It was a place nobody wanted to stay and look at, but almost everyone did.  Shaped like a long, broken arm, the road contained several houses with lacerated windows and bruised walls.  The Star of David was painted on their doors.  Those houses were almost like lepers.  At the very least, they were infected sores on the injured German terrain.”

In choosing Death as a narrator, Zusak uses this character to dangle foreshadowing blatantly in front of his readers and then draw it back, pulling the reader deeper into the pages of the novel.  The Book Thief offers an unusual perspective on the Holocaust thanks to Death’s observations, and it should be on every book lover’s list.  Before you start another book, read The Book Thief.  It will undoubtedly touch your heart.

***

What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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