I had heard of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak but hadn’t thought too much about it until I went to dinner with my aunt and uncle and one of my aunt’s friends raved about it. I was intrigued by her enthusiasm and wanted to find out if it was as good as she said it was. I actually wasn’t entirely sure what the book was about but I am very glad I picked it up. It grabbed my attention from the first page and made me feel deeply for the characters through every chapter.
The Book Thief is the story of a young girl named Liesel. She is taken in by a family named the Hubermans. It is hinted her mother is giving her and her brother up (who dies on the journey) because she is a communist and can’t take care of her children any longer. Liesel quickly bonds with her new foster father, Papa. He begins to teach her to read from a variety of books that she steals over the course of the story. Book and stories become her refuge in a time that is confusing and ultimately tragic for such a young child. Her parents take in a Jewish man and hide him in their basement for a while. It is the story of one family trying to not only protect this young child but to raise her with respect of all people no matter where they come from or what their religion may be.
What really grabbed my attention was the POV of the story. The story is actually told from Death’s POV. He found this book and is telling us the story of Liesel that he has read from The Book Thief that she wrote about her life. Generally when we get a omnipotent narrator, they are nameless and faceless. When I was in school this type of narrator was always referred to as Godlike. I loved Zusak’s take on the idea. That the character watching and being able to see all is not God but Death itself. It makes you think about who is watching over us. Death is someone who is with everyone because no matter your beliefs, choices or mistakes you will one day meet Death, no matter what. Which is an idea that we better understand by the end of the book.
Death seemed like a kind soul in this story. He wasn’t some hooded creature out to take lives and destroy hearts. (I saw Death as ‘he,’ throughout though it is never stated what Death’s gender is, if gender can actually be attributed to this abstract idea). He was someone who just had a job to do, a job he wasn’t a big fan of. He constantly states how busy he was during WWII and had it hurt him to see so many lose their lives so early. The image of him cradling the young souls in his arms, was bitter sweet and one of my favorite images from the story. For a concept that we see as harsh and cruel much of the time Zusak was able to personify Death into someone we understand and actually feel bad for at times.
Death is a common theme in this novel. Not only does it begin with Death speaking about the war and the story we are about to hear but one of the very first events in the novel is the death of Liesel’s brother. A death the haunts her for a very long time. It is the first time that this young girl is thrust into a world where things are harsh and hurt. She is taken out of a protective bubble and showed how much the world can cause pain.
Liesel lives in Nazi, Germany and we all know how dark and scary that time was for many people. Though Liesel lives in a world that can destroy you at every turn, if you say the wrong thing or show sympathy to the wrong person, she is sheltered by her foster parents. They are the light to the darkness that surrounds her life. They show her that everyone deserves to be treated well, no matter who they are or what religion they follow.
One moment that really stuck out to me was the moment when Mama found out that Papa had taken Max in and was going to hide and protect him. Mama’s character until this point was harsh and seemed a bit cruel at times. I expected her to refuse out right and make a statement about how they couldn’t put their own lives at jeopardy for this man they barely knew. But she didn’t, she gave him food and accepted him into her house with barely a fight about it.
This moment solidified that these two people were good people, they were the type of people that would keep this world from crumbling and becoming full of hate. That they were people who could not sit around and watch people be tortured and killed without doing what they could to save some of them. They had little money and no power but they took in this man and not only protected him but became his friend. Not only did they become friends with him but they allowed Liesel to get close to him as well. She got to see that no matter what they posters said or what Hitler spoke about, the Jewish people were the same as any other German. This was such an important part of this story.
Max was not hidden away from the young girl. They didn’t make it so it was an adult thing that she could not understand. They treated her as an equal just as they expected her to treat Max. Mama and Papa are the epitome of good parents and good people. They are what all of us need to embody. They treated someone just as they would like to be treated if their places were reversed and they taught their daughter to do the same. A lessons she could then pass on to her own children and anyone else she meets in life. If you there is nothing else you take away from this book then take away that lesson.
Unfortunately for Liesel she had to watch her innocence die. A small series of events shocks her system and throw her out of her safety bubble that her foster parents had created for her. Papa gives a small piece of bread to a starving and sick Jew who is being paraded down the street and as a consequence for his action he is forced to join the army. Max leaves as well afraid that he is going to get the family into trouble. Liesel watches as the darkness creeps into her life as a shadow. Now all she is able to do is worry about Max and her Papa. Her childhood is now gone. The shadows hovers over her shoulder making her worry and feel the cold of the cruel world before it completely consumes her life, for a time at least.
Liesel decides to write down all that has happened to her in a book called The Book Thief and it is doing this that saves her life. She is in the basement of her home when a bomb drops and kills both her foster parents and good friend of hers as well. Liesel goes into shock and her world becomes bleak and black for a while.
But we see that she is strong just as her foster parents raised her to be. She goes to live with the Mayor and his wife (someone she has struck up a friendship with). She becomes a strong woman and ends up moving to Australia and has a family of her own.
This book was a snapshot of one family trying to live in the very dangerous world of Nazi Germany. I liked getting this small take on this world and seeing it from this perspective. We got to see how one normal family had to fight to survive and how they taught their daughter how to not only survive but how to cultivate good in a world that at times seems dark and full of hate.
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