“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 may be one of my favorite quotes of all time. The reason being that it so amazingly, in two short sentences, sums up the fantastic, emotional roller coaster and gripping tale that is “The Book Thief.” (A feat I would have thought impossible.)
The Book Thief opens with Liesel Meminger, 11-years-old and standing by her brother’s graveside as her mother is taking her to live with a foster family. It is at this small, somber funeral that Liesel becomes The Book Thief, after stealing “The Grave Digger’s Handbook,” lost in the snow by the unfortunate, young, grave-digging apprentice. And so begins her brilliant love story with books and words as her new, accordion-playing, soft-eyed, “Papa,” Hans Hubermann, teaches her to read. It’s trying times in Nazi Germany however, especially for those who grapple with the challenge of disagreeing with the Nazi party. Soon Liesel is stealing books from Nazi book burnings and the mayor’s wife’s library, reading them to her neighbors as they hide in bomb shelters during raids to calm the crying children and just-as-terrified adults. Liesel forms one of the most heart-warming childhood relationships in literature with Rudy, a neighborhood boy, frustratingly endearing and quite the pistol. Liesel’s foster family commits their own silent rebellion when taking in a Jew on the the run, Max, and hiding him in their basement. The friendship that forms between Liesel and Max is touching, as they both learn to help each other heal from their painful pasts.
Reviews featured on the book compare the novel to “The Diary of a Young Girl” and “Slaughterhouse Five”, because it “makes his ostensibly gloomy subject bearable…with grim, darkly consoling humor.” Others call it “life changing.” Why?
There are three things that make this book so ambitious and searing: Zusak’s phenomenal, poetic, writing style, the insightful point of view provided by the unique choice of narrator, and Zusak’s ability to create stunning, heart-wrenching, twists throughout the book. First off, Zusak is most certainly a gifted writer. The style of his writing is so wonderfully poetic; he parallels his beautiful story with beautiful words as well. At a point in the novel where Zusak’s narrator (hold on I’ll get to him in a moment), reflects on Liesel he says, “If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love, without knowing it, mistaking it for laughter.” A quote that, I think, shows Zusak’s true mastery of words.
And now, probably the most important part of this story, who tells the tale. The one who tells this story, who “saw the book thief three times,” is Death. Originally upon hearing this, it made me hesitant to read the book. I expected it to be dark and depressing. However, it is none of the above. Death is darkly satirical, but it lends a much needed note of humor to an otherwise downing subject. Let’s face it, Nazi Germany during WWII was a terrible place to be. But, Death was everywhere, all at once. He saw more of the good and the bad of humankind during that era than any other being. No one else could provide a more accurate telling of those times. Death is sympathetic, particularly to those who get “left behind” in the sadness when others join him, like Liesel and has to create distractions for himself because it is simply too hard for him to watch. He comments, “It kills me sometimes, how people die.” He despises all the destruction and despair that humans create for themselves. Death provides some stunning insights into human nature, a unique and caring narrator and an incredible, revolutionary look at a time when death was everywhere.
This is an up-until-3:00am, carry-it-with-you-everywhere, read-the-last-two-hundred-pages-in-one-sitting, kind of book. Seriously, don’t read it during a time when you are going to need your sleep, because you aren’t going to get any. You can’t help but melt with the pages and let the ink seep into your head. You will fall in love with every amazing character and relationship. You will cry. You will cry a lot. Not little sniffles, but sobs of overwhelmed sadness, healing, and hope. The thing is you will feel better after, it’s a therapeutic, inspiring sort of tale. You will laugh at Rudy’s many unsuccessful attempts to convince Liesel to kiss him. You will be comforted and awakened, enlightened, and at peace. You will be ready to start over again from the beginning as soon as you finish. It’s one of those books that makes you feel like you’ve lost a close friend when you finish it.
This is one of those books that will change your life. It is one of the finest and most moving pieces of modern literature. Writing this makes me want to go read it. Again. This is my go to book; I pick it up and read my favorite passages over and over again. Needless to say, I highly recommend it. Pick it up! Trust me, you will thank me later!
Markus Zusak is also the author of the Ruben Wolfe trilogy (1999-2001), and “I Am the Messenger” (2002). “The Book Thief was published in 2005. The final two Ruben Wolfe books were not published until more recently in the US I believe, as all of his books were originally published in Australia, they were written first but not published in the US until after his two other stand-alone books.