Occasionally, you will read a book that offers you new ideas about what a book can actually do, how point of view and voice can be used differently but powerfully, and how characters can be developed to such an extent that they seem more human than those we come into contact with each day. This seems to be the case with Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel, The Book Thief. I first read it on a recommendation from a colleague, and now find myself talking about it at great length to anyone who will listen. If you love to read and if you love to care about the characters you read about and if you love to eat words like they’re ice cream and if you love to have your heart broken and mended on the same page, this book is for you.
Death himself narrates the story of Liesel, a German girl left with foster parents just before the outbreak of World War II. Along the way to her new home with her younger brother, he dies; after the funeral, Liesel steals The Gravedigger’s Handbook, though she cannot yet read. It’s only the first of what will become a series of book thefts. As she settles in with her harsh but caring foster mother, Rosa, and kind foster father, Hans, Liesel gets to know her poor neighborhood and learns to read. Her obsession with books grows as the war closes in, rationing is put in place, air raids begin, and Hans hides a Jewish man in the basement. Through it all, Death travels the Earth, taking in more and more souls every day. The descriptions of the sky are like nothing I’ve ever read.
The participation of Death as narrator is first seamless and then essential, as his care for the humans haunting him comes shining through. I appreciated that the author gave Death feelings, including a sense of humor. This line, among others, cracked me up, “For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to. Perhaps it’s so they can die being right.”
The Book Thief is not your typical WWII story. It doesn’t even ask you to sympathize with the Jews. Their plight is background to the story and their struggles and pains are rarely shown except through the pitiful/beautiful character of Max. After finishing the last part of this book, I had to take a deep sigh and think about all that I have read. This book is not just about a girl who steals books, it is so much more than that.
There are so many amazing layers to this book. I love the fact that it’s a book about a book thief. I love how books are mile markers in her life, and how she herself can barely control the love and hate she feels for the power of words. I love the impact books have had on her life. The love that the characters have for Liesel is truly moving. The love that she has for them is heartbreaking in the most astounding way. This is a fictional book, but it’s very much a true and honest look at humanity in its finest moments and its worst moments. It’s as if Markus Zusak studied the human soul and was able to articulate its many range of feelings: love, grief, regret, relief, wonder, and everything in between.
This is a devastatingly powerful book that should become a staple of literature discussion groups for sophisticated teen and adult readers. This book has won many awards, including the ALA Best Books for Young Adults, Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and the School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year. And it deserves every one of them. This book will educate readers about living under Nazi rule, and it will inspire them to think about human nature and why some heroic people are able to put their lives on the line to do what they know is right.
This is a book to treasure, a new classic and I absolutely loved it.
Few of my favorite quotes from book are as follows:
“I am haunted by humans – Death.”
“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
“Even death has a heart.”
“The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you.”
“I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
My rating : 5/5
Disclaimer: If you want a fast read, this book is not for you. If you only like happy endings this book is not for you. If you don’t like experimental fiction, this book is not for you.