Publication: March 2006
Source: Library copy. A very torn and tattered library copy that has been read so many times that the pages now have a cloth-like softness about them. And, thankfully, only one unidentified thing that looks like a booger squished between two pages.
This is one of the best books that I’ve read. Ever. It blew me away. It cleansed a part of my heart and renewed a part of my spirit that I didn’t know needed cleansing and renewing. Markus Zusak is a brilliant writer with the soul of an angel. Yes, I’m gushing. It’s a 550 page book set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death. Doesn’t exactly sound like good times, but it really is a great read.
Zusak writes about the other side of Nazi Germany, those Germans who, as he says in a Q&A, didn’t want to fly the Nazi flag and boys & girls who thought the Hitler Youth was boring and ridiculous. In other words, the side of German life that “lives beneath the propaganda reels that are still so effective decades later.” Zusak shows the fine line people had to walk when they weren’t interested in following the party’s increasingly intolerant ideology. He does it without being heavy handed or preachy.
It took me a dozen or so pages to get into the flow of the book. It’s a bit choppy at first due a stylistic device, but it didn’t take long for the reading to smooth out for me.
The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is given over to foster parents by her mother after her father is taken away by the Nazis for being a communist. Liesel doesn’t know this at the time but eventually pieces things together. On the train ride to her new foster parents, she watches the death from illness of her younger brother.
Liesel’s story is narrated by Death. It’s ingenious, really, to have a story about the largest slaughter in the history of the human race being narrated by Death. Who else could tell a story containing so much death (Jews, civilians, and soldiers) so objectively without perpetuating more propaganda? I came to like the character of Death.
Here’s a good summary of the story that doesn’t contain spoilers from the reader’s guide in the back of the book:
Liesel Meminger is only nine years old when she is taken to live with the Hubermanns, a foster family, on Himmel Street in Molching, Germany, in the late 1930s. She arrives with few possessions, but among them is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, a book she stole from her brother’s burial place. During the years that Liesel lives with the Hubermanns, Hitler becomes more powerful, life on Himmel Street becomes more fearful, and Liesel becomes a full-fledged book thief. She rescues books from Nazi book-burnings [really, its only one, but this sets off a chain of events] and steals them from the library of the mayor. Liesel is illiterate when she steals her first book, but Hans Hubermann uses her prized books to teach her to read. This is the story of courage, friendship, love, survival, death, and grief. This is Liesel’s life on Himmel Street, told from Death’s point of view.
I could go on and on about how fantastic this book is (How you’ll grow to love the characters. How tears will stream down your face. How you’ll smile with knowing warmth at the different ways love is expressed between the characters. How you’ll be saddened by the senseless killing and hatred. How you’ll be moved by small acts of kindness) but I won’t.
This book is often categorized as teen fiction and if you don’t read teen fiction please don’t let that put you off. It’s simply a book for people with soul who like a good page-turner. If award winners are your thing this book has won a bunch of them and it’s also on lots of ‘best’ lists, too. It was a New York Times best-seller so some of you may have seen it on display in your favorite bookstore a few years ago.
They’re making a movie out of The Book Thief, but I can’t imagine going to see it. I’m usually excited about books being made into movies, but this is one that I don’t really know if I’ll go see it. Liesel and her family & friends are so finely burned into my brain that someone else’s version of them may have a cheapening effect. We’ll see.