the book thief

I wouldn’t call The Book Thief  a book about Nazi Germany, or World War II, or the Holocaust.  I’d call it a book about people who experienced Nazi Germany and World War II and the Holocaust.  This may seem like a subtle difference, but to me it’s exactly what made this book so good. 

Markus Zusak’s Book Thief is Liesel Meminger, whom we first meet as a nine-year-old on her way to Molching, Germany at the dawn of World War II.  The Fuehrer, the Nazis, even the concentration camps already exist, but they take awhile to fully intertwine with Liesel’s story.  Liesel is simply a girl being brought to live with a poor foster family, for her even poorer mother can no longer care for her.

What makes the narrative startlingly riveting is Zusak’s choice of narrator — Death.  Death, it turns out, is a surprisingly philosophical being, with empathy and compassion for those he picks up, as well as for those he crosses paths with.  And we learn early in the book, as Death explains to us how he first came to know of Liesel Meminger, that her story will not always be a happy one, for she and Death will cross paths on several occasions.  

Liesel’s journey is shaped by these path crossings, in more ways than one.  It is Death’s collection of her small brother, in fact, that leads her to claim her rightful title; it is a book dropped by a digger of her brother’s grave that is the first one to be stolen.  Though it is taken by the illiterate Liesel simply as a link to her brother, its existence provides her foster father, Hans, the opportunity to teach her to read, and it is through these lessons that Liesel comes to discover the power of books and the words they hold.  

Hans, with his accordion and letters and silver eyes, is just one of the brilliant characters Zusak has created.  There’s also Liesel’s incorrigible best friend, Rudy; the sad mayor’s wife; the ever-swearing foster mother, Rosa; and the fist-fighting Jew, Max.  Though at times the book reads like a collection of short stories about these various characters, they seamlessly tie together to shape the overarching one.  They are bright, funny, sad, touching, and silly all at once, and the subtlety with which Zusak moves the reader through the years makes the heartbreaking scenes — the ones where the war is brought into focus again, where Death sometimes intercedes — that much more meaningful.   

Overall, The Book Thief is easily one of the most impressive pieces of young adult literature I’ve read, and certainly one of the most creative, which isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do with historical fiction.  In spite of the narration by Death, the format is playful, and juxtaposing this against the backdrop of the stark time period does a lot to humanize the characters — including Death.  It’s a book well worth reading — for anyone of any age — and one I’d be interested to teach someday if given the opportunity.


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~ by Molly on April 20, 2009.

2 Responses to “the book thief”

  1. Great review of a book destined to be a classic.

  2. […] book I’ve read and reviewed in the past six months: The Book Thief. (You can read my review here, if you haven’t already.)  Entering for a chance to win is simple — just leave a […]

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