Originally, it was simply the title of this book that caught my eye. Before I knew anything about the content, the characters, or the storyline I was wondering to myself, “Is the book thief someone we love and rejoice in? Or is it someone we hate and revile?” It is a simple title but fraught with questions and meaning. After that original sighting of the title, (I was broke and therefore unable to purchase the book) I started seeing it everywhere. Everyone was talking about it in the various different book lovers pages that I follow on Facebook. This made me wary at first. Ever since 50 Shades of Grey, I no longer trust public opinion on decent literature. So when I finally had some extra money I looked into the plot a little bit more and decided to purchase it. I am very, very glad that I did and very glad as well that I got a physical copy of the book rather than just purchasing it on my Kindle.
The Book Thief is set in Germany from the years of 1939-1943. (For those of you bad with remembering dates, this is during WWII). The narrator of the story is Death. Yes, Death with a capital D. Let me tell you a little about the narrator before we get to the rest of the story. Death is tired. His boss is a jerk and these dang humans won’t stop killing each other so he can take a break. Seeing the number of people that died during this incredibly horrendous period of our world’s history is always heartbreaking. Seeing the numbers laid out by Death is somehow real in a way that it never was before. Death is like any other hard worker, stuck in a job he doesn't love but he doesn't know how to do anything else. His life has become mundane. He pays little attention to human lives. To him the human experience is so fleeting and, in the end, just another job.
“I witness the ones that are left behind, crumbled among the jigsaw puzzles of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs.”
One of the ones that is “left behind” catches his attention. Our main character, Liesel, on the day she loses her brother. Liesel’s mother was taking Liesel (roughly ten years old) and her brother Werner (roughly six years old) to Molching to be given to foster parents there. On the train, Liesel’s little brother dies. Liesel’s mother has to bury him in a town that she will not be able to visit, on her way to voluntarily give up her remaining child to strangers. As a mother, this is something that is just the most horrifying thought I could almost ever imagine. I realize that the mom is probably doing the right thing for her kids by giving them up. Particularly if she can’t afford to feed them. I still judge her a little. I know that Nazi Germany is a far cry from lower middle class America in 2014 and I have no real idea of what struggles she faced. I just can’t imagine willingly giving up my child. Anyway, I digress.
After Werner is buried, Liesel steals her first book. Through her grief she sees a black book with silver writing on the snow. Why an illiterate ten year old would want to steal a book I don’t know. Grief makes everyone do strange things. She may have just wanted to have something from the area her brother was buried in. However, with the passion she develops for books later on, she may have felt inexplicably drawn to it, somehow knowing it could change her life.
When Liesel arrives in Molching, the enormity of loss that she is facing seems to overwhelm her. She does not want to leave her mom and she no longer has her brother with her. To top that off her foster mother, Rosa, is an angry looking foul mouthed woman. Her foster father Hans, on the other hand, has a very kind spirit that eventually shines through to the little girl and she enters her new home. The relationship between Hans and Liesel is a beautiful story all on its own. There are not a lot of natural fathers that would get up with a child’s nightmares every night, and stay awake to teach the child to read. Hans is a painter by day, although work is scarce, and plays the accordion at night in some of the local pubs. His patience and kindness is beautifully portrayed through every action and word we see from this character.
Rosa, Liesel’s foster mother is a harsh and demanding woman. Seeing the contrasts between Rosa and her husband it really makes you wonder how the two of them came to be married to begin with. Rosa does laundry for various townspeople and, as the war takes its toll, she also begins to lose business. Rosa is verbally and physically abusive to Liesel and just about everyone else she comes into contact with. However, she becomes a lovable character as the book progresses and Liesel loves her.
Liesel makes friends with some of the neighborhood children, most importantly her neighbor Rudy. Rudy has an admirable character. He is nearly fearless and earned a name for himself a few years before by painting himself black with charcoal and running 100 meters at the local sporting field. Rudy does not have the heart of a Nazi and his dad has to explain to him that he shouldn’t want to be like the blacks or the Jews. Rudy has always made it a point of pride to not be afraid of the opposite sex so he is one of the first to welcome Liesel. He also almost immediately loves her. Throughout the book he is constantly doing things to try and earn a kiss from Liesel. She loves him as a friend, and is just starting to consider the idea of something more towards the end of the book. Rudy and Liesel start stealing things together. They stole apples a couple of times and some other food stuffs and, most importantly, books.
The other important person in Liesel’s life came to live in the basement of her foster parent’s house about a third of the way through the book. His name is Max and he is Jewish. The family begins to hide him and take care of him. Max and Liesel become very good friends and share many secrets with each other. He stays with the family in the basement for quite awhile until Hans draws attention to the family by being kind to a Jew and Max goes on the run again. Every time the Jews are marched through the town, Liesel looks at their faces to see if they have caught Max.
The writing style of this book is very different than most other books. As mentioned before the narrator is an interesting and unique choice. The descriptive prose is incredible. The format of the book is interesting and can be a little hard to follow until you get into the swing of the book. Perhaps, due to his very nature, Death is very fond of foreshadowing. If you don’t like spoilers at all you probably won’t much enjoy this book. However, in my opinion, even knowing parts of what are going to happen does not diminish the book in any way. I relate the timeline skips in the story to talking to a very old relative about their life. They know everything that has happened but they don’t necessarily tell their story in a linear fashion. Death is about as old as you can get and has seen billions of human lives pass by. Death has kept Liesel’s story in his pocket for many years.
“Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt – an immense leap of an attempt – to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.”
One of the other things I love about this book is that, while written in English, there are German words and phrases throughout the book as part of the dialogue. The ones we see the most often are swear words, and those are also the ones most likely to get defined in English for the reader. The book has 88 chapters but only 576 pages. This makes for short chapters. Some are only a couple of pages long. I was glued to this book throughout the entire story and found myself a bit distraught at its conclusion. Not due to the way the book ended necessarily, just that it did end.
The author of this book, international bestseller Markus Zusak, was born in Australia. His mother was from Germany and his father was from Austria. They emigrated to Australia in 1950. Zusak states that The Book Thief was largely inspired from stories his parents told him about growing up during WWII. Markus Zusak has written four other books; The Underdog, Fighting Reuben, When Dogs Cry and The Messenger (or I Am The Messenger). All but one of his books have won awards. He is reported to be working on a new book titled Bridge of Clay, but he has been working on that since 2008 or so and the release date has been pushed from September 2011 to an undisclosed date. I am assuming this is due in large part to the major success The Book Thief has enjoyed and hopefully his participation in making the film. I have not read any of his other books but I do plan to at some point in the near future if I can.
The Book Thief was made into a major motion picture in 2013. I have not seen the movie yet but plan on watching that at the earliest opportunity as well. I am very interested in seeing how they translated this story to the big screen.
If you like historical fiction, particularly from World War Two, look for my upcoming review on Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.