I picked up this book knowing nothing except that I had heard only formidable remarks about it. Therefore, I was in no way prepared for the number of heartbreaks I would experience while reading it. First of all, you need to know that this book is narrated by Death. Not a skeletal, hooded creature, although he collects the souls of the dead, but one who deeply sympathizes with the surviving. The story is not at all morbid or gruesome, and family, kindness and love are major themes. Death is personified and disjointedly relates the life of Liesel Meminger of whom he is reminded by accounts written in a book he stole from her. Ironically, Death is not the thief of the book’s title; it’s Liesel.
The Book Thief is set during the Holocaust from the perspective of poor and normal Germans. Zusak states in interviews that he uses this viewpoint because of the stories his parents told him about World War II. This makes the novel different to others set during that time: it shows that Germans, including the blonde and blue-eyed, were persecuted for doing what we would now consider to be the “right” thing, whether it was helping Jews as they marched along the road or concealing them in basements; or not hanging the Nazi flag from windows on Hitler’s birthday.
The narrator carefully observes the nature of human beings in the story. It forces one to think of the immoral and inhumane actions that we do, especially to each other.
Liesel Meminger is an eleven-year-old German girl who never knew her father. Having lost her mother, her younger brother dies on the train ride to their foster parents’ home. After her brother’s small funeral, Liesel steals her first book “The Gravedigger’s Handbook”.
The foster parents are the multi-talented Hans Hubberman and foul-mouthed Rosa Hubberman who turns out to have a warm heart. “Make no mistake, the woman had a heart. She had a bigger one than people would think. There was a lot in it, stored up, high in miles of hidden shelving.”
Hans is an accordionist and a painter by profession. He teaches Liesel how to read her stolen book in the silent hours of the night, right after her regular dose of nightmares about her brother. She develops a love for books, and for Hans, and she finds comfort and solace in reading while living in the midsts of a war. “Papa, you saved me. You taught me to read. No one can play like you.”
Liesel slowly settles into her new home and befriends Rudy who has “hair the colour of lemons”, her next door neighbour who reveres the athlete Jesse Owens so much that the anecdote of him painting himself in charcoal is continuously referred to. They participate in the childhood pleasures of football, stealing fruits and going to school. Liesel has secret joys of her own like stealing books from Nazi book burnings and private reading sessions in the Mayor’s Library.
Eventually Liesel has to keep the secret of Max Vandenburg, the son of Hans’ Jewish friend. Max is hidden in the Hubbermans’ basement and Liesel is a treasure to him. They read together and share profound words that will etch into the memory of the reader. The importance and beauty of books is resonated throughout; Liesel is able to comfort her neighbours by reading during bombings and Max presents her with a book as a gift. However, during the final bombing in her hometown, books are not what Liesel screams for.
The characters and the story seem realistic but the style of Zusak’s writing made me feel “on the ouside” through not having lived in 1940s Germany; not having seen every person dear to me disappear, not having fought in the war or been beaten on the road.
The reader is not the book thief or Max. But the reader is a member of the human race. “I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
I consider this book to be a ‘must read’ and I promise that every tear one sheds is worth the reminder that we are all sharing this earth together. This piece of literary art is convictive and comforting.