Reviewed by: Mrs. Herr
“There’s a multitude of stories (a mere handful, as I have previously suggested) that I allow to distract me as I work, just as the colors do. I pick them up in the unluckiest, unlikeliest places and I make sure to remember them as I go about my work. The Book Thief is one such story.” Death is exhausted; World War II is raging and he is in need of a vacation. But since Death is not allowed a literal vacation, he vacations through distractions – in colors. He needs distraction from the surviving humans who “have punctured hearts and beaten lungs.” Occasionally, as stated above, Death allows himself to notice a human; Liesel Meminger is one such human. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, tells the story of this resilient girl finding family, love and the power of words in the midst of suffering and loss.
Liesel Meminger has lost her family; she has just witnessed her brother’s death on the same trip in which her mother will leave her with foster parents. Naturally, Liesel is traumatized by witnessing the death of her brother, so what does she do? She steals a book. A book she cannot even read. And so begins Liesel’s career as a book thief and her powerful relationship with books, words, and with her new life. This new life is touched by a stunning cast of characters, each of whom plays a part in Liesel’s healing as well as her growing awareness of the power of words:
- Silver eyed, accordion playing, gentle Hans Huberman seems to know just how to comfort Liesel when the nightmares come each night. Part of the healing ritual involves teaching this broken girl to read and write. He lets her paint words on the basement wall to build her confidence and plays the accordion to soothe her fears.
- Stout and blunt, Rosa Huberman flings insulting words like rocks from a slingshot. Her exterior is gruff, but she loves Liesel and provides the solid, steady strength Liesel needs, balancing Hans’ gentleness.
- Max Vandenberg, the fist-fighting Jew hiding in the Huberman’s basement, has much in common with Liesel. Max gives Liesel more than she could imagine: a sense of being needed, brotherhood, and words that reach deep into her soul.
- Rudy Steiner, the boy with whom Liesel trades loving insults, is her best friend. Constant, loyal, daring, and very protective, he rescues her books and helps her steal more of them from the mayor’s basement where whole new worlds of stories have been opened up to her. Most of all, Rudy wants a kiss from Liesel.
All of these memorable characters influence Liesel in ways she never expected. As Death looks on, and gives us awful foreshadowing of what is to come, we can feel Liesel growing and learning. We also sense that Death is creeping ever closer to her world on Himmel Street. Liesel has witnessed the power of Hitler’s words to rile a nation into a hateful frenzy, but she has also felt their power to give comfort. Perhaps her own words can bring healing as well.
I can honestly say this is one of the most moving and beautiful books I have read in my lifetime. Zusak’s use of figurative language is effortless and poetic, giving this novel such strong voice that you feel that you actually come to know the character of Death. Interspersed throughout Liesel’s story are chilling descriptions of the way that Death feels as he waits for souls to rise from smoking chimneys or crowded showers in camps throughout Europe. This reminds the reader of the “big picture” of what is happening outside of Liesel’s own world, events of which she is largely unaware. Yet World War II leaves no one untouched, and Liesel’s new family is no exception. The characters in this novel are so well developed, with such distinct personalities and deep impact on Liesel, you genuinely care for them. Balancing the heavy foreboding of what may be on the horizon for Liesel, her story is also full of fun, sweet, often humorous moments as well. But make no mistake; there will be some tears as the War finally reaches her world.
I cannot recommend The Book Thief highly enough. It is a story that will linger in your mind long after you finish. These characters attach themselves to your heart and make you want to go back and read about them again and again. It is not for younger readers, though. True to the time and the circumstances, the characters, especially the kids, use rough language; they lead a rough, largely unsupervised life, and their language reflects this. It isn’t gratuitous; it simply lends credibility to the characters and the time period. For mature readers in 6th grade and up, this is a novel you should not miss.