I am excited. I knew from about page seven of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak that I would absolutely review this novel here at Blue Speckled Pup, but I’ve forced myself to wait until I actually finished reading and digesting it to write this post. This is the novel that I decided to teach in my grade nine classes this year, but I sincerely recommend it to every literate person over the age of twelve. Yes, it is that good.
The Book Thief follows the experiences of Liesel Meminger in Nazi Germany, who at age nine witnesses the death of her younger shortly before being abandoned forever by her mother. Liesel’s foster parents have no children of their own, but care for their new charge as best they can, and despite the foster mother’s habitual screaming and swearing and the family’s growing poverty, caused largely by the foster father’s sympathy for Jews and his resulting loss of income as a house painter.
When she arrives in her new home, Liesel is illiterate. One of the reasons I love this book so deeply is its exploration of lives changed by reading and writing; that may be the English teacher side of me. Liesel’s foster father teaches her to read, one slow step at a time, and it is books, often stolen, that anchor the characters to each other, and even to life, when the war and hatred and fear escalate in their small town and the world begins to crumble.
Zusak has created characters who live on the page, and about whom I thought, even dreamed, well after I closed the book for the day. Liesel and her family, and the others who share their world, existed for me. At certain points, which I won’t describe here because it would be truly criminal to divulge too much plot, I shook my head in disbelief at the tragedies encountered by the characters. In one of the most moving scenes of the novel, Liesel and her best friend Rudy race their bikes ahead of a huge group of Jews, who are being herded to Dachau on foot like cattle; the children scatter their own rations of hard, dry bread on the road for the starving people.
This is another example of a book set in Nazi Germany that deals largely with the experiences of civilians during World War II, and addresses the stranglehold of the Nazi party on the German people. Most of the popular books set in Germany during this time period focus on the Jewish people who were persecuted and exterminated; sharing the stories of these stolen lives is laudable and infinitely valuable. What is often missed, and I wrote about this in my review of The Glimmer Palace, is the fact that Hitler caused the suffering of many millions more Germans, the people who remained in the cities and towns, barely surviving on scant war rations and living in constant fear of the Gestapo. The Book Thief follows the struggles of Liesel’s foster parents, who don’t agree with Hitler’s message of hate and prejudice but are unable to speak up for fear of their own lives.
I’m saving the best element of The Book Thief for last: it is narrated by Death personified. That’s right: Death. Markus Zusak’s novel resonates with me so deeply largely because the whole thing is told from the point of view of a sympathetic Death, tired of the waste of senseless killing, and exhausted by his sorrow for the people who die cruelly and far too young. It’s rare to read a novel with an objective narrator. Death doesn’t take sides, but recognizes the incomprehensible tendencies of human beings to create suffering. He describes collecting the dead after a bombing raid with a tenderness that filled my eyes with hot, immediate tears:
“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” (336).
Death is what makes this novel so incredible. Modern humans struggle with death. We see it as an enemy, something to be avoided at all costs, and the image of the grim reaper is universally feared. The Book Thief peels away fear about death, leaving it only as an objective entity with an overwhelming job to do. Death begins observing Liesel after watching her at the death of her little brother, and her life fascinates him more with each close encounter they share. Throughout the novel, death acts largely as a fan of Liesel and her loved ones, cheering them in victory and expressing palpable grief in their tragedies.
The Book Thief is an astounding piece of literature; it explores even the ugliest aspects of human cruelty with a fluid grace that makes it nearly impossible to set down. Somehow, it addresses complex concepts with a simplicity that makes it accessible to all readers. I give it my most heartfelt recommendation. You truly need to read this book.
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