The Book Thief by Austrian author Markus Zusak is a novel taking place in Nazi Germany. The book was published in 2006, and since then it has won many awards and spent over 230 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list.
She was a girl.
In Nazi Germany.
How fitting that she was discovering the power of words.
Liesel Meminger meets Death at the age of nine when she attends the funeral of her brother. Werner died on a long train trip taking them to Molching, Germany to a foster family which will distance the children from their Communist parents. It is at the funeral that Liesel, an uneducated illiterate, steals her first book.
As Death continues to narrate the book, he observes Liesel’s relationship with her foster parents, her neighborhood, a Jewish fist fighter, and Rudy Steiner, a boy her own age. Along the way Liesel stumbles on more books, many of which she steals, and becomes a soothing voice during the Allies bombardments.
The Book Thief is a very popular novel, mainly among the young adult crowd, and I can certainly see why. The book celebrates the power of the written word, of language, and encourages people to read–providing an interesting twist in the narration.
The book’s approach to the Holocaust, not tackling it straight on but looking from the sidelines, will appeal to teens as well as adults. The young heroine is a feisty girl who navigates through the claustrophobic and schizophrenic world of adults in Nazi Germany, and is both smart and tough, with admirers and haters. All the characters occupy Molching, a small town which tries to keep out of the huge events surrounding it in the nearest city (Munich) and the nearest concentration camp (Dachau), as both rich and poor struggle through their daily chores, hoping to have enough money for a few bites at the end of a long day.
The Book Thief itself is geared toward young adults on the cusp of full fledged adulthood. The book’s narrator, Death, is sorry for what he has to do, his “boss” expecting him to do the impossible while mankind keeps feeding him “clients.” Most of the violence and bloodshed we associate with the Nazis is masked by symbolism or metaphors.
As I’m sure any intelligent reader has already figured out, books play an important part in the story. However, the one book the protagonist didn’t steal plays a very important and unexpected part – Mein Kampf. Hitler’s book helps to save a Jewish man, Max Vandenburg and it is then used to make an entirely new book. The connection between the little girl and the Jewish outcast is forged on a new book built and written on the pages of Mein Kampf.
The strength of The Book Thief is its wit and understated horror. Death has a sense of humor, a keen eye and a literary outlook (“For me, the sky was the color of Jews”). It is an impressive book and I appreciate Mr. Zusak’s ability, but a few lesser moments of the author trying to get the audience to tear up would have worked in its favor.
- 576 pages
- Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0375842209