One of the things I love best about reading is that moment you crack the spine of a novel and realize, without a doubt, that the literary adventure on which you’re about to embark will change your life — your entire view of the world. And for me, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is exactly one of those books.
Death tells the story of the book thief in question — Liesel Meminger, a young German girl sent to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann in Molching, Germany during the onset of World War II. Nine-year-old Liesel arrives traumatized following the death of her younger brother and her forced separation from her father, taken away under suspicion of Communist leanings by the Hitler regime, and her mother, whom she sees for the last time stranded on a train platform.
Loud-mouthed and abrasive Rosa immediately sets to work straightening Liesel out, but Hans — or Papa — embraces the young girl, teaching her to read the beloved book she’s carried with her from her brother’s snow-covered grave. As Liesel battles nightmare after nightmare in her new bed in a new town, far from the only home she’s ever known, Hans patiently sits with her each evening, comforting her and playing his beloved accordion. A survivor of “the Great War,” or World War I, Hans has some of his own nightmares to face. And one of those Great War memories eventually comes back to meet him face to face — and ask for his assistance, and safety, during one of the most terrifying times in world history.
As she gets adjusted to her new life slowly, Liesel befriends the Steiners, the family next-door on Himmel Street. Young, ambitious and yellow-haired Rudy Steiner takes an immediate shine to Liesel and the two promptly become both inseparable friends and partners in crime. As Poland is invaded in 1939 and the war begins in earnest, Rudy and Liesel further descend into thievery. It starts with a few dozen apples with the other rebellious kids in the neighborhood — after all, everyone is hungry. Everyone. But Liesel is only interested in quenching her thirst for knowledge, eventually befriending the morose wife of the town mayor. Liesel visits Ilsa Hermann in her mansion on the hill, collecting the washing for her mother, and is able to pour through the thousands of titles in the Hermann library. The book thief is overwhelmed by the sheer possibilities of the stories — and it’s these very stories that calm the terrified residents of Himmel Street as the war reaches home, sending them all into makeshift bomb shelters. And help them say goodbye to their loved ones.
It’s hard for me to even describe this book with any clarity, or string along some sentences to talk about how emotional I am after finishing it. Everything I think of seems inadequate — it can’t possibly do it justice. This is a story about love, fear, loss, death, life, family, friendship, evil and, ultimately, hope. The book is divided into several parts and, as mentioned, Death narrates the entire tale — talking about how haunted he/she is by humans, by their willingness to survive, by the way they somehow endure despite everything. Scenes I can’t imagine seeing — feelings I can’t imagine feeling — losses I can’t believe anyone could face. They’re all in The Book Thief, laid bare but told so poetically tears will spring to your eyes. I absolutely sympathized with Death, the one told by “the Boss” to gather up the souls of the dead and carry them from the wrecked, ruined bodies strewn across Dachau, and Stalingrad, and London.
Five hundred souls . . . I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I’d throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms.
I loved the fact that Death would foreshadow the entire story, giving us glimpses of an inevitable future as we read along. It didn’t bother me in the least and, when he explicitly tells us that he’s “ruining the ending” of the story just in the hopes of not catching us unaware, I actually appreciated that. I knew the outcome of the entire novel — knew, more likely than not, who would live and die — but that didn’t ruin it in the slightest for me. I was so emotional upon completing the novel, I was happy I didn’t have to be caught up in a terrible shock for the last 30 pages or so. Although plenty of surprises were still there, I had more time to prepare myself for the end.
And, like Liesel, we are constantly reminded of the power of words — of books. What was Hitler without his rhetoric? As Death and Liesel both point out continually, he was nothing more than a tiny tyrant full of eloquent speeches, someone who tapped into fear and anger and resentment after World War I and exploited every advantage. Liesel recognizes the words’ ability to transform and empower and uses them, too — to help ordinary Germans, and the Jews, too. And one Jew in particular.
I don’t want to this review on a depressing note, though — because The Book Thief was anything but depressing. It was inspiring and emotional to realize the adversity mankind has faced, to see the sorrows some endure and still carry on, to realize that people who stood up in places like the dirty gutters of Himmel Street against unimaginable pain and humiliation must surely have a special place in Heaven — especially if Death has anything to say about it. I finished the book sitting on a swing in my back yard, staring up at the sun on an absolutely perfect early spring day. When I closed the last pages, I leaned over to pet my dog on the head and immediately started counting my blessings. There are many. And novels like The Book Thief help us remember what life is really all about — loving, caring and being together. Helping one another. And I’m going to work a little harder to remember that every day.
Don’t miss this book — don’t skip over it because of the heavy subject matter, or push it to the bottom of the TBR stack because of its sheer heft (576 pages, but trust me — they go fast!). Read it and share it with others. Pass it on and on and on.