It would be difficult to make the residents of a small German town near the infamous Dachau concentration camp sympathetic, given their enthusiastic support of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, but author Markus Zusak succeeds brilliantly. By focusing on the children, especially the orphaned Liesel Meminger and her desire to rescue and read books, Zusak makes readers see the devastating result of followers blind to their leaders’ excesses.
At nine, Liesel has not learned to read, having been excluded from school presumably by her parents’ identification as Communists. Over the course of the book, Liesel learns to read from the first book she takes (The Gravediggers Handbook). She steals books from a bonfire and from the library of the local mayor, and she comes to cherish the words and stories they bring her.
Liesel is surrounded by unforgettable characters, including her loving and wise foster father Hans Hubermann; her irascible foster mother Rosa; Max, the Jewish boxer hiding in the Hubermanns’ basement; Jesse Owens fan Rudy; and the silent wife of the mayor, who opens her library to Liesel.
These characters are made unforgettable by the narrator, the incarnation of Death. The Grim Reaper (who laughs at the image of himself carrying a scythe) comes into Liesel’s life as her brother dies in the opening scene, and is drawn to her. Death is overwhelmed by the incomprehensible number of deaths caused by the war, but finds Liesel on his periodic journeys to her hometown. An outsider to human society, his otherness is emphasized by his use of oddly beautiful language, and by pronouncements that illuminate human fascination with causing destruction. Even in his entirely unsentimental and completely democratic execution of his duties, Death takes time to appreciate the beauty of each soul he collects, describing them in colors and terms that make them individual even as they die in masses.
It amazes me that The Book Thief was marketed to American audiences as a young adult novel, probably on the basis of the main character’s youth. While younger audiences can certainly read and understand the story, older readers can appreciate the beauty of the language, the difficulty of living on the edges of (and sometimes in opposition to) a totalitarian society, and the tragedy and redemption of the story’s end. While I wouldn’t characterize it, as the New York Times did, as “life-changing”, it is an astonishing book and one well worth putting on your list.
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