Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
No. of Pages: 386
First Released: 2005
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “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…
Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist — books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.
This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.”
Comments and Critique: The Book Thief is one of those books about which you hear nothing but good things but really have no idea what it truly is about until you pick it up and read it for yourself. On the surface, it appears like historical fiction, showcasing a girl growing up in Nazi Germany. As you delve into The Book Thief, you realize that there is so much more buried in each page. It is a very welcome surprise.
So, what makes The Book Thief different from other novels about growing up in Nazi Germany. For one thing, the narrator makes for one interesting twist. Caricatures and popular portrayals of Death involve macabre images of a skeletal, bony figure drifting towards the doomed person. Mr. Zusak’s version of Death is sympathetic, very likable and surprisingly human. The reader feels his weariness at his never-ending task, his struggles to maintain disinterest, and his genuine concern for the souls he carries home.
Similarly, this is not your typical “everyone followed the party line” novel. History books would have one believe that everyone in Germany knew what was occurring in various camps and completely supported the Nazi regime. This is not true, and Mr. Zusak portrays life in Nazi Germany in a more realistic light. Not everyone is complicit. In fact, there were many who were against the government and covertly found ways to circumvent the laws. In Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, secrets abound from the upper echelons of the government down to the individual citizen. Mr. Zusak paints a picture that highlights these secrets and puts forth to the reader that idea that all is not what it appears to be.
Hitler was about power. He craved it above all else and stopped at nothing to get it. He knew from early in his career the power of words. He knew this and used it to his advantage. He was a brilliant public speaker and capitalized on this talent to inflame his followers. Banning and eventually burning books that might “negatively” influence his citizens was another example of his knowledge of the power of words. Liesel, as the book thief, understands the importance of words. What starts out as an act of remembrance for her, in her desire to remember her brother and mother, eventually turns into a subversive method of revolting against the world around her. It is also an act which provides her hints that something awful is happening in the larger world.
Speaking of Liesel, the narrator makes much of Liesel’s first theft, about how she had such a desire to learn to read that this one need urged her to pick up the book out of the snow. I sincerely disagree. I am not convinced that when she first saw the book lying there, her first thought was how she wanted to read it. Rather, that particular book represented, to her, the changing world and the power of love. It became a symbol of bygone days. As for the power of love, through her theft of books, Liesel began to learn that love not only keeps us alive, it also has the power to destroy us too. These are powerful lessons for a girl of thirteen to learn, and lessons most adult readers should take care to learn as well.
I will confess that I do have a personal connection to the book and its subject matter. I majored in German as an undergrad and specialized in German history. I even considered the idea of obtaining a doctorate in German history, specifically Germany preceding and during World War II and how everyday, ordinary citizens coped with the Nazi regime. Because of this interest/fascination, I was favorably inclined towards The Book Thief from the opening page. When I realized where the book occurred, in Molching, Germany, my interest soared even more as I have spent several days exploring that town as well as the concentration camp in Dachau. The German words and phrases and the backdrop all made me reminisce about my time living in Germany for three years and definitely instilled a strong desire to visit and tour the country yet again.
The Book Thief is a tremendous book about life, love, and the power of words. There is a unique beauty behind the starkness of the words. Death is not one to mince words, but through the simplicity of his statements, the reader gets glimpses into the carnage and yet beauty behind human behavior. Through his insights, the reader sympathizes with Liesel as well as she struggles to foster meaning behind actions and words, both written and spoken. The overall effect is one that leaves the reader brooding about books, life, and human nature long after the last page. Trust me when I say that if you have not done so already, you must read this book. The hype is definitely justified.
As my children selected this book for me to read among the stacks and stacks of unread books in my office, this book counts as my final selection for the Random Reads Challenge. Since I purchased this book with my own money, it also counts towards the Buy 1, Read 1 Book Challenge.