Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Release Date: 2005
A fantastic story about a little girl living in Germany during World War II, her parents gone and her brother dead. She takes comfort from her foster parents, most especially from her foster-father, an extremely kind man who gives up sleep — and himself — for this little girl, Liesel Meminger. She gains a great love for words, books, and writing as her acordion-playing foster-father helps her to learn how to read, so much so that she steals books from wherever possible, even Nazi book-burnings. Through the struggling of learning to read, surviving during this horrible time, gaining friends, and obtaining material for her to read, The Book Thief tells the fantastic story of Liesel Meminger.
The Book Thief, as much as anything else, is a book about people. The characters of The Book Thief are quite extraordinary, and certainly make the novel great. Liesel, of course, the main character to whom much sympathy is given. Seeing all of these events through the eyes of a nine-year-old (and up to fourteen years old as the novel progresses), is really quite amazing, and definitely emotionally moving. This story as a whole really gives you a unique look on World War II and the Germans — it forces you to realize, whether you did before this book or not, that not all were bad. Liesel and her family prove this. WWII was a terrible thing, and horrible things happened to people on both sides — all the more reason why it’s important to remember that not every simply supported Hitler and the things he did, even if they were German. This book helps you realize that.
My favorite character, perhaps, would be “Papa” — Hans Hubermann. A fantastically portrayed father-figure for Liesel, he’s really quite the extraordinary man. Waking up every single night for a long period of time in order to comfort Liesel of her nightmares. He’ll stay awake for hours, playing the accordion and teaching her how to read. Which is one of the most enjoyable parts of this book. At her brother’s death, Liesel picks up a book in the snow, The Gravedigger’s Handbook — the first act of book thievery. With that she begins to read, taught by her Papa and slowly, but definitely surely, becoming better and better to the point that she can read, and read well. Even so well that she is paid in food — something very scarce for her foster-family — to read to an old lady. And so it is thanks to her Papa that she becomes the very enjoyable character that she is.
The Book Thief is, without question, a story about a bibliophile and a writer. Perhaps that is why I loved the book so much, as those are two traits that I share with her. Of course, I have it easy. As much as she loves books, she is only able to get them by stealing, as they are otherwise banned. The dedication she has to learning to read and write is simply awesome and inspiring. If she could become a lover of books — if she could read books at all — during such horrible times as WWII, then really, no one has an excuse for not reading. Everyone should love and cherish books.
And her Papa helps her with that, always supportive, always giving up time to help her. What I love about Papa is just how great of a man he is. He doesn’t care what happens to himself — as seen when he gives food to a Jewish man, among many, many other instances — but only cares about helping others. He is a great father-figure, and suffers greatly — even at the hand of himself — to help others. One particular moment that I liked is when he is, to put it simply, quite stern with Liesel. He in fact even hits her (something that is not uncommon, but almost never done by Papa — in fact this may be the only time he does it, I forget), but really, really doesn’t like doing so. He wants to just hug her and hold her and tell her everything is okay, but he doesn’t. He forces himself to do the right thing in order to protect her and their family. Quite simply, he saved their lives. I don’t agree with the fact that he hit her, no, but you also have to realize that times were different then. And even so, I respect him for doing the hard thing as it was for her.
Liesel also develops close relationships with other characters throughout the story. One, Rudy, is her best — and one of her only — friend. They spend many hours together, and it was quite enjoyable reading their interactions with each other, the nick names they had (even if they were insults — that’s what made it great), how well they got along, and how badly they got along. Bickering, making fun of each other, getting in arguments, but never anything serious. Always in the way of a great friendship, made greater and stronger by his love for her and later, as she discovers, her love for him as well.
Another great character she becomes close to is Max Vandenburg. An extremely enjoyable character to read about as they also gain a great, great friendship as he lives in their basement (a Jew). The things they do together, the books he writes for her, the presents she gives him when he’s sick, all forming together to create something that, again, is simply just very enjoyable, many times putting a smile to my face as I read their interactions.
The last character I want to mention, and one that she shares a strong bond with, albeit in a very, very different way from the previously mentioned character. Not a close friend that she spends a lot of time with, but still someone who Liesel grows close to and someone who is very influential on Liesel, Ilsa Hermann was another great character. She provides Liesel with many of the books she “steal”, and as the novel progresses they grow closer and closer, coming to an understanding with each other. Toward the end of the book she gives Liesel perhaps the greatest gift yet — a blank book with lined paper, the book that Liesel uses to write the story of her life; The Book Thief. At one point it says how “…there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was writing.” Something very true, and it’s awesome to be able to relate to such an amazing character that is Liesel.
But the characters aren’t the only things that make The Book Thief such an stunning book. Amazingly written, and from Death’s perspective, it really is quite unique. I personally loved the format and the way that Death would narrate things — it gives not only a unique outlook on the story, but a unique outlook on writing in general. Not to mention it reminds you that Death isn’t a bad thing — Death isn’t the Devil, after all.
The emotion, as I’m sure you can imagine from a book set during World War II and about a young girl, is definitely heavily-laced throughout the story, but it is quite well done. It had me smiling and on the verge tears many times, a book that struck the heart through both happiness and sadness. The ending especially was simply fantastically written, Very sad, but fantastic all the same.
I am quite surprised that it is considered a children’s book — I can see a Young Adult’s book, as I think it is an extremely important book with great messages and great for teens — but it cannot be ignored that the subject is also not exactly for children. With much minor swearing (and a few not-so-minor occurrences) and the subject matter of WWII, it’s definitely not the most kid-friendly or happy read, but all the same, it is amazing.
Overall The Book Thief was an amazing read, and I’m sure it will remain one of my favorite novels. Definitely highly, highly recommended. If you are a bibliophile, a writer, simply someone interested in Nazi Germany, then this book is especially for you — but really, this book is for everyone.
(Rantings of Harry Potter to possibly come soon, as I had just finished reading the whole series for the first time before I started The Book Thief on Tuesday)
One thought on “The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak”
I enjoyed reading your review Andrew! I thought you summed up what The Book Thief was about perfectly. I liked Max Vandenburg a lot too. I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to find out where he ended up in the end. He was one of those characters that you really cared about even though you didn’t know a whole lot about him. Also for some reason having Death as the narrator reminded me a lot of the Deathly Hallows story for some reason. I think it’s because of the other editions of the Book Thief has Death depicted the same way as it was in the Deathly Hallows movie.