Desert Isle Keeper
The Book Thief
Writing a review of The Book Thief, I am burdened by a sense of “What’s the point?” This book has already received copious amounts of positive press; The New York Times, Kirkus, Horn Book, The Washington Post, and Publisher’s Weekly, among others, have given it glowing reviews. What insight can I really add to this discussion? Yet, here I am writing. I am supposing that there are readers out there who, like me, rarely read book reviews in the above venues and might have missed all of the raving. So because it would be a sorry shame for anyone to miss this book, here goes.
Liesel Meminger is a young German girl who’s been dealt a rather awful hand by life. The Nazis came for her father, a communist, and, likewise branded and also ailing, her mother finds it too difficult to care for Liesel and her brother, Werner. So they travel to Molching, a small town outside of Munich, where a foster family has been found for the children. Only Death finds them on the train and spirits Werner away, so it is only Liesel who comes to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann.
The Hubermanns live on Himmel Street, one of the poorest streets in Molching. Money dried for them after Hans failed to become a party member; he gets most of his income playing his accordion in the local tavern. Rosa also takes in washing. But though they are poor – and Rosa rather abrasive – the Hubermanns have good hearts. Liesel soon begins to blossom under their care. She learns to read and, in searching out more stories, begins a quiet and steady career of book thievery. Just one every now and then – something saved from a book burning or a volume stolen from the mayor’s house. Thieving, Liesel finds, is a way of taking something back. Something from Hitler, something from despair, something from Death. But Death will find his way back to her. He will dance around her…he will become slightly obsessed with Liesel Meminger and her story…
Knopf’s book is hard to sum up in a paragraph or two. Liesel’s story stretches over four years and touches on many things: growing up, Nazi Germany, Jews, rebellion, resistance, war, poverty, grief, friendship, family, and books. It’s about survival. In many ways it’s about death and how unexpected it is even when one might have cause to expect it. Mostly, though, it’s about love – Liesel’s love of reading, of her friends Rudy Steiner and Max Vandenburg, and her love for the Hubermanns.
The most interesting aspect is the story’s narration – Death does it. He is a sensitive narrator, poetic, detail-oriented, and amusing. He punctures the flow of his storytelling with various facts, definitions of words, or lists of important points, highlighting what the reader should pay attention to in a very conversational way. Few authors use the omniscient point of view these days; it can be distancing for the reader. Indeed, Death does maintain a certain objectivity. This is just one story of many for him. Yet none of the characters seem flat, and the emotions they feel shine through. Even Death’s emotions are revealed in the telling – he is not unaffected by Liesel or her story.
In crafting The Book Thief Zusak made a number of clever inclusions. There are several stories within the main story, and they are fantastically illustrated in a way that adds a great deal of texture to the larger story. Zusak’s prose is lovely and often more poetry than straight prose, but he also uses metaphor and symbolism wonderfully. And the book circles back on itself, revealing and clarifying events, in way that rather demands rereading.
Since I am writing this review for a romance-reading audience, I must include a few caveats, the most important being: the book is very sad. There is no happily ever after, and several very beloved characters do die. I cried a lot. Things also end rather abruptly, though this is rather mandated by the book’s omniscient point of view – Death can only tell so much, only what he personally experiences and reads in Liesel’s handwriting. Also, the story is a bit baffling in the beginning. It takes a while for Liesel’s story to begin and for Zusak’s very poetic writing to settle into an easier-to-process narrative style.
Many readers will be turned off by the above caveats, but The Book Thief is more than worth risking an emotional response for. Zusak’s descriptions of a childhood in Nazi Germany were absorbing. So many World War II stories center around the Holocaust. This one adds another layer and shows that suffering wasn’t limited to those the Nazis sought to invade or destroy. For that reason and for all the ones I outline above, I highly recommend The Book Thief. I can say without hesitation it’s the best book I’ve read all year.