THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak

Book Quote:

“There were certainly some rounds to be made that year, from Poland to Russia to Africa and back again. You might argue that I made the rounds no matter what year it is, but sometimes the human race likes to crank things up a little. They increase the production of bodies and their escaping souls. A few bombs usually do the trick. Or some gas chambers, or the chitchat of far away guns. If none of that finishes proceedings, it at least strips people of their living arrangements, and I witness the homeless everywhere. They often come after me as I wander through the streets of molested cities. They beg me to take them with me, not realizing I am too busy as it is. ‘Your time will come,’ I convince them, and I try not to look back. At times, I wish I could say something like, ‘Don’t you see, I’ve already got enough on my plate?’ but I never do. I complain internally as I go about my work, and some years, the souls and bodies don’t add up, they multiply.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie Name (MAY 19, 2009)

The Book Thief is one of the best novels that I have read.  Author Markus Zusak’s storyline is both sad and wonderful, as it deals with Germany during WWII and the Holocaust. His memorable characters have tremendous depth, and the plot is extremely original. However, what makes this book so extraordinary is the author’s writing, which, at times, is more poetry than prose. I frequently found myself reading passages of the elegantly written narrative aloud.

Appropriately for the times, Death is our narrator and a major character. Death, the “gatherer of souls,” writes of himself, “I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold. And I don’t have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance. You want to know what I really look like? I’ll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue.” In the Prologue, Death states, “Here is a small fact: you are going to die. Does that worry you? I urge you – don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair.” The figure describes himself as amiable, even affable, but warns, “don’t ask me to be nice. ‘Nice’ has nothing to do with me.”

When the novel begins, Death is gearing up for mass production. It is 1939 and WWII has just begun. By 1945 the entire world will be at war. And it is Death who comments on man’s inhumanity to man, almost without emotion, in as objective a manner as possible. This inhumanity will cause it/him to work 24/7 in various places in the world at once. That’s what I call multi-tasking.

Nine year-old Liesel Meminger is our protagonist, “the book thief,” although when we meet her, she is unschooled and cannot read very well. Liesel, her little brother Werner, and their mother are on a train to Munich. All three are skinny and pale, with sores on their lips. It is on the train that Death comes to claim young Werner’s soul. Liesel and her mother despair. The boy is buried near the city, and one of the gravediggers, an apprentice, drops a black book as he walks away in the freezing winter weather. Liesel picks up the book, without calling out to notify the gravedigger of his loss. The book is titled, in silver letters, “The Gravedigger’s Handbook.” It is the first book she steals. So much has been taken from her, the grieving child feels like she settles part of the score when she commits the theft. In Munich the girl’s mother bids her good-bye and turns her over to a foster care woman. The mother disappears, never to be seen again.

Liesel and the woman make their way to a small town, Molching, on the outskirts of Munich, close to the Dachau death camp. They stop at a small house on Himmel Street, where her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, await the little girl. Hans is a kind and loving man who quickly takes to Liesel and visa versa. Rosa is also basically kind, although she puts up a front as a shrewish loudmouth. She is a laundress by trade and Hans is a house painter who loves to play the accordion. He is not a member of the Nazi Party. When he realizes he is losing customers because of his lack of enthusiasm for Hitler and the Nazis, he tries to join but his papers are on permanent hold. Their two children are grown and live away from home.

Liesel has terrible nightmares and occasionally wets the bed. Hans, hearing her late night screams, sits with her and comforts her, sometimes until dawn. Occasionally he plays the accordion for her until Rosa yells at him to “shut up!” The empathetic, kindly man and the traumatized little girl form a close bond and Hans begins to teach Liesel to read, especially as she is fascinated by words. She believes that words have great power, after all, Hitler didn’t need guns to persuade the German people to follow him and to hate Jews. He used words.

When she begins school and the teacher realizes that the girl can’t read, she is placed in a class with younger children. Most humiliating. It is during one of Liesel’s frequent nightmares, that Hans begins to teach her to read. Since the Hubers have no books of their own, Hans uses Liesel’s “The Gravedigger’s Handbook” as a teaching tool. Then another book, a copy of “Mein Kampf,” is acquired, one of the few available books which have not been burned. And yet another book, “The Shoulder Shrug,” which Liesel snatches from a pile of burning books, is added to her collection. “Germans loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Reichstags, houses, personal items, books and of course, people.”

Eventually, Liesel acclimates to her new home and makes friends, especially with Rudy, the boy next door and her biggest fan. She never overcomes her nightmares, however, nor does she ever forget her mother and brother. It is at this time when she is forced to join Hitler Youth.

Then Max Vandenberg, a German Jew in hiding, comes to ask Hans to fulfill a promise he made to his father, a comrade in arms who saved Hans’ life during WWI. A Jew seeking refuge…what to do? Hans, an honorable man, feels obligated to keep his promise, even though it would mean death for Rosa and himself if Max were discovered in their home. Liesel is sworn to secrecy. The Hubers take the man in and set up living quarters for him in the basement. Max becomes part of the family and forms a close friendship with Liesel. She becomes his eyes and ears to the outside world. He eventually writes a book for her, “The Standover Man” – a simple, illustrated and haunting book about what it is like to be born Jewish in Hitler’s Germany.

Life goes on. Liesel learns to read and steals more books – fourteen in all. She and her friends adventure. Germany declares war on Russia. Death’s work increases, especially on the eastern front and in the concentration camps. He/it feels overwhelmed by the souls to collect from the camps, gas chambers, battlefields, and causalities from air-raid bombings. Max begins to do crossword puzzles in the old newspapers Liesel occasionally finds for him. Rosa’s and Han’s workload diminishes significantly. Times are tough, rationing is strict, and people don’t have money to send out their laundry or to have their houses painted. And, of course, Hans carries the stigma of not belonging to the Party. I don’t want to include any spoilers, so I will stop my summary here.

This is a powerful novel that kept me riveted throughout. As I wrote above, I sometimes stopped to read parts of the prose aloud. There is humor here also. One needs comic relief when reading a novel about such a heinous period in mankind’s history.

Markus Zusak’s parents grew up in Nazi Germany and Austria. He frequently thought of writing about the things his parents had seen during the war. He says he thought about the “importance of words in that time, and what they were able to make people believe and do.”

Appropriately, the novel’s last words belong to Death: “A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR: I am haunted by humans.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 573 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf Books for Young Readers (September 11, 2007)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
AMAZON PAGE: The Book Thief
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Try: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne


May 19, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Facing History, Germany, Reading Guide, Unique Narrative, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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