For a while, I’d heard rave reviews about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, so I flagged it as something to keep in mind as I combed used book stores. A couple months ago, I found it. Recently, during a spring break that I primarily spent huddled up in bed and miserable with the flu, I read it.
It is a dark and beautiful book.
Narrated by Death, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, a girl sent to live with German foster parents in the lead-up to WWII. She is the titular book thief, beginning with the grave digger’s manual she snags at her little brother’s funeral. She can’t read the book initially, but with the help of her loving and constant foster father, she learns, and over the course of the novel, indeed steals other books. Only a book at a time and frequently when she’s the most agitated by life.
The cast of characters of strong. Hans Huberman, the father, is loving and constant. Rosa Huberman, his wife, is a sharp-tongued woman whose constant verbal barrage masks her more caring personality. In time, they end up sheltering a Jew named Max Vandenburg, a man with “hair like feathers” who becomes good friends with the girl and even writes her some stories of his own on the painted-over pages of Mein Kampf. Their friendship is I think the most touching in the book since they are both traumatized by experiences and find comfort in sharing their nightmares with each other. Liesel’s best friend and accomplice to mischief is Rudy Steiner, a boy with lemon-colored hair who always asks her for a kiss. The primary source for Liesel’s later book thefts is the mayor’s wife, a shadowy, depressed woman who leaves her library accessible to the girl, tacitly encouraging the thefts and later recommending that the girl write her own story.
We all know the tragic consequences of the German Holocaust, and narrator Death does mention how busy the events keep him. But Zusak doesn’t dwell on the large-scale casualties, with the result being a more human–and devastating–look at personal loss during war. While the march of Jews through town is heartbreaking, so too are the results of a bombing campaign near the end of the book. As tragic as the losses are, the survivors’ emotions are more so. It’s a no-win situation, which is written well.
That said, the book also has very beautiful moments. As mentioned, the relationship between Leisel and her accordian-playing Papa is touching. His having a fourth-grade reading level doesn’t stop him from doing what he can to help the girl learn to read after she is awakened by nightmares is touching and indeed is a gift that serves her well throughout the novel. As many books are, The Book Thief is also an homage to the power of reading to transport people from dreary circumstances. This is illustrated simply and beautifully when Liesel reads aloud to everybody in the shelter as they wait for a bombing campaign to end. It’s telling that each time they have to go wait out a bombing, Liesel grabs her books to take with her–a bittersweet detail that is sure to make most bookworms smile a little in identification.
Death’s–and the book’s–final words are: “I am haunted by humans.” Fitting words for a haunting book.