The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl living smack in the middle of World War II and Nazi Germany, as told from the point of view of Death. At the onset of the novel, Liesel is traveling with her birth mother and her brother to be turned over to a foster family. Liesel's brother, Werner, dies on the train traveling to the foster family, so Liesel is left alone with the two strangers, Hans and Rosa Hubermann.
Liesel slowly grows to be one of the Hubermann family. She forages a special bond with Hans, her "Papa" who is a painter, plays the accordian and teaches her to read. Hans committed a grave faux pas by painting over Jewish slurs on a building. He, therefore, is ostracized by "the Party." That does not deter the Hubermann family. They are compassionate people, who take in a Jewish man named Max and hide him in their basement.
With the help of her Papa, Max, Rosa, her best friend Rudy and the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann, Liesel learns the power of words in a world that is literally falling apart around her.
The book jacket for The Book Thief reads "'It's just a small story, really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery...'" This was far from a small story at 552 pages, but they literally flew by. Markus Zusak is extraordinary, plain and simple.
The Book Thief is classified as a young adult novel, and I have to admit that I have not read much young adult literature since I stopped teaching high school English. I am grateful that this book was on the reading list for the East Bay Mystery Reader's Group this month. I would not have known about it otherwise, and I would have missed out on an incredible reading experience.
Zusak picked an appropriate, yet unique, perspective from which to tell the story of Liesel Meminger. Who could be more qualified to "see all" during this world's most horrifying era than Death? Death's description of himself is wonderful:
***A Small Piece of Truth***
I do not carry a sickle or scythe.
I only wear a hooded black robe when it's cold.
And I don't have those skull-like
facial features you seem to enjoy
pinning on me from a distance. You
want to know what I truly look like?
I'll help you out. Find yourself
a mirror while I continue.
And Zusak didn't choose to tell this story from the experience of a Jewish person but rather from the vantage point of a young German girl. While Liesel, the Hubermann's and their neighbors are waiting in a basement during an air raid, Death says,
As is often the case with humans, when I read about them in the book thief's words, I pitied them, though not as much as I felt for the ones I scooped up from various camps in that time. The Germans in basements were pitiable, surely, but at least they had a chance. That basement was not a washroom. They were not sent there for a shower. For those people, life was still achievable.
In this small segment I heard Zusak telling his reader not to think that the suffering of the innocent people outside could begin to be comparable to the suffering of the Jews in the camps, but to remember that most everyone suffered during this abomination; there were innocent people who tried to do the right thing and were overpowered by the evil prevailing.
One of the most powerful strengths of this novel is the way Zusak develops relationships between Liesel and the other characters. Liesel and Rudy, her best friend, are inseparable, always taking care of each other. The bond between Liesel and Ilsa Hermann can best be seen when Liesel smacks Ilsa with verbal insults:
Blood leaked from her nose and licked at her lips. Her eyes had blackened. Cuts had opened up and a series of wounds were rising to the surface of her skin. All from the words. From Liesel's words.
Ilsa had offered a gift because she felt bad that she had to stop sending clothes to be cleaned by Rosa. Liesel, being a young girl and not being able to see beyond herself, only felt betrayed and the gift was no consolation. The words Liesel threw could not have harmed Ilsa if she didn't care about Liesel. One of only many images in this book that illustrate the power of words.
And of course, the relationships between Liesel and her Papa, as well as that between Liesel and Max. They guide her in her growth, but she teaches them as well.
Sadly, we all know the plot of World War II, so this story isn't about the plot. It's about the characters. It's about the relationships between the characters. And it is told in such a way that you close the book at the end having felt every emotion you know of.
Zusak's talent with language is mesmerizing. The images that are conjured up for the reader enhance the tone of death and destruction, but still bring through the life that is happening in the midst of despair. At times there is literally music emanating from the words on the pages. And at other times, it is solemn or foreboding.
While you might have to venture into the Young Adult or Children's section of the library to find this book, if you haven't done so already, I highly recommend you do. It's a must read for us all; a reminder of the power of words and how blessed we are to hold that power!