“It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and it will become busier still.”
— The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
It is simple enough for me to say that I love most books, but there are few books that have also had the ability to dominate my emotions in such a way that they are torn from my inner core and put on full display, smeared across the pages. The Book Thief is one of those books. It is also one that I have been wishing to read for awhile now and now that I have, I am very glad that I did. While I’m late to the bandwagon, I think it is appropriate that I read it now; not only has a movie adaptation been released, but Markus Zusak, an already bestselling and well-known author, also won the annual Margaret Edwards Award this year for his contribution to young-adult literature in the US.
On that rewarding note, in The Book Thief, Markus Zusak tells his story in a fascinating combination of first- and third-person narration. The first-person narrator is Death personified, but not in the stereotypical fashion you would automatically imagine. No, Zusak’s perception of death is like that of meeting an old friend, which is very humanizing, almost comfortingly so. There is no figure cloaked in dark robes carrying a scythe, but rather he arrives as a source of solace for the numerous dead and dying during the war.
For a quick summary, although I’m sure everyone knows this by now, The Book Thief follows the life of a young German girl, Liesel Memminger, who is given into foster care by her mother for her own protection. It is on this journey to her new home that Liesel commits her first act of book thievery, on her way to becoming the infamous book thief. Death comes into contact with her for the first time here when her brother passes away in his sleep, and it is during her brother’s brief funeral that Liesel finds and takes The Grave Digger’s Handbook, accidentally left in the snow presumably by a young grave digger apprentice. It is upon this discovery that Liesel’s obsession with books and words is born, and under the guidance of her accordion-playing foster father, Hans Hubermann, she learns to read.
The narrative shifts between Liesel’s experiences occasionally interjected with Death’s own narration as he watches Liesel and collects the dead across Europe, revealing the turmoil occurring beyond Liesel’s everyday activities on Himmel Street. These activities range from stealing books from the mayor’s wife’s library to refusing requests for kisses from her best friend and partner in crime, Rudy Steiner. However, dangerous times come to Himmel Street when Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man in hiding, knocks on the Hubermann door, the result of a promise to the wife of a dead comrade after the First World War. As the war comes closer and bombs are fly overhead, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed, as she realizes the sheer force encapsulated in the words she has learned to read — words that can be used for good as well as for evil.
While the book starts out somewhat slowly, there is a lot to love about the craftsmanship behind Zusak’s writing, which is both elegant and moving. His decision to tell his story through Death’s eyes is ingenious. Immediately, the reader is forced to bear witness to Death’s sharp matter-of-fact statements on the rising number of dead and the Jewish “showers” while at the same time being lulled by the innocent play between Liesel and Rudy, as they exchange humorous endearments from “saukerl” to “saumensch.” Zusak also reveals the uncanny understanding and insight of a child that adults often overlook, such as the simple comment made by Rudy’s brother Kurt in regards to the fallen dominoes looking like dead bodies. Zusak captures this in each of his young characters, creating children with indomitable spirits that observe and fight back in their own way with the rest of the adult world.
The book is one of those tools Liesel uses to fight back with, and it is used as a motif throughout the novel, highlighting the power of words. In addition to using words for defiance, Liesel also uses them as a shelter for herself and others, especially when she reads to Max during his sickness or to the rest of Himmel Street while in the basement during the bomb raids. Significantly, Max also revitalizes the power of words for good, inscribing his story onto the painted-over pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is just one example of the remarkable use of symbolism employed within The Book Thief.
While I wish to find fault with Death’s early spoiler in the novel, which forecasts Himmel Street’s heart-wrenching destruction, I cannot manage it. Death was made even more relateable with this addition of a human fallacy and I was no less enthralled by what I read despite knowing how it would end. I still followed each character’s timeline, almost desperately so, mentally exhausted by the emotional attachment I had developed for them. So true-to-life, these characters literally breath on the pages — Death’s preparation was not enough.
A poignant read that is devastatingly brilliant and absorbing from start to finish, Zusak reveals a World War II Germany that is rarely touched upon. And, just like Death, we, the readers, are haunted by these humans Zusak has introduced us to. Liesel, Rudy, Hans … they are the types of characters that resonate and are well worth carrying around long after the last page is turned.
5 out 5 book thumbs up
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published in Canada by Knopf, © 2005