Like books that get you emotionally involved with them, that hook you from the very first page and make you want to keep reading them until the final page? The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a novel about a young girl in Germany during World War II and how she is raised by foster parents, develops a love for books largely attained through stealing (though, “stealing” is in the eye of the beholder, to an extent), and how she changes for the better the lives of everyone around her. Narrated by Death, who is portrayed not as evil, but as a tired, war-weary worker who tries to make sense of humans and is haunted by them, The Book Thief haunts the reader as well, long after the book is put down.
The Book Thief, which a reviewer for USA Today (rightfully, IMHO) said “Deserves a place on the same shelf with The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank,” has already won numerous awards. It’s the winner of the Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Children’s Literature, the Michael L. Prinz Honor Book Award, and the National Jewish Book Award, among others. It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Book Thief is the type of book that both children and adults will find intense and captivating and will remember as one of the best books they’ve ever read.
Liesel Meminger and her brother are being taken on a train by their mother (the father is not mentioned much; we are left to guess as to his fate and whereabouts) to a foster family located in on Himmel (Heaven) Street, in Molching, Germany. Her brother, however, is sick and coughing, and dies on the way. The memories of this give Liesel nightmares that jerk her awake at night at the house of Hans and Rosa Hubermann. The young girl is, of course, scared to be leaving her mother (who can no longer care for her) and to be living with strangers, but she comes to love Hans and even Rosa, despite Rosa’s coarse language and her doling out beatings with a wooden spoon as punishment for misbehavior. Death’s description of Rosa, as well as his narration in general, is lyrical and combined with pathos:
*** SOME FACTS ABOUT *** At their best, both Hans and Rosa are examples that, even during one of the worst times in history, even in Nazi Germany, human kindness and love for one’s fellow man can exist and thrive despite the most horrendous circumstances. This is shown in many ways through their thoughts and actions, from taking in and raising Liesel, to Hans’ painting over Nazi graffiti on a shop owner’s door, to their hiding of the German Jew Max Vandenburg in their basement. Life on Himmel Street in one of the poorest parts of Molching is far from “heaven”, but Hans and Rosa try their best to bring a little bit of heaven to Himmel Street for Liesel.
She was five feet, one inch tall and wore her
browny gray strands of elastic hair in a bun.
To supplement the Hubermann income, she did
the washing and ironing for five of the wealthier
households in Molching.
Her cooking was atrocious.
She possessed the unique ability to aggravate
almost anyone she ever met.
But she did love Liesel Meminger.
Her way of showing it just happened to be strange.
It involved bashing her with wooden spoons and words
at various intervals.
When one of the people who dig her brother’s grave accidently drops his book explaining how to properly dig graves, young Liesel picks it up and keeps it. She doesn’t know yet how to read, but the book is a last tangible link to her brother. Books, the new friends she meets (such as Rudy Steiner, a German boy who idolizes Jesse Owens) and her foster parents’ love for her help ease the pain of loss she feels for her brother and mother. She is stuck in a lower grade because she doesn’t know how to read, but Hans helps her and reads to her from The Grave Digger’s Handbook when she wakes up screaming because of her nightmares.
This book is so richly written that it’s difficult to do it justice with a review. It’s full of moments of joy and moments that could wring tears from stones moments which show humans at their best and at their worst, as any good book set during a war ought to do. The Book Thief makes a gloomy, grimy, dark subject bearable and shows us, among other things, that not all Germans were Nazis, that many had kind hearts and tried to help the Jews despite any potential repercussions or hardships to themselves. Reading this book is like a gift for one’s soul. I commend the author, Markus Zusak for writing this brilliant gem of a novel, and I highly recommend it to everyone.