21 Jan Book Recommendation: Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief
I was only about a hundred pages into Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief when it hit me… This is a special story. I had already been a tremendous fan of Mr. Zusak’s writing after reading I Am the Messenger, and the hype surrounding The Book Thief only continued to grow after the novel first gained widespread notoriety by spending over 230 weeks on The New York Times’ best sellers list. It took home several prestigious awards in the world of Young Adult Literature including a Michael L Printz Honor which is awarded to the best books for teenagers and is based specifically on the quality of the writing. In fact, the proclamation of “a new classic” is tagged like graffiti all over the Internet when it comes to this novel.
It’s not hyperbole. All of the praise Zusak is getting is well deserved. His use of imagery and personification is incredible, and he crafts a story that often reads like poetry from page to page. Zusak’s unique brand of storytelling is not just lyrical; it’s daring. Narrated by Death, The Book Thief is about a young girl in Nazi Germany named Liesel Meminger. As you might imagine, Death is very busy in the early 1940s. It recalls a few encounters with Liesel over the course of the second World War, but accounts for most of her story from a book he found that Liesel wrote during that time. Death foreshadows later events, he interweaves seemingly unconnected stories, and he even spoils some of the book for you, only to momentarily throw you off track so he can bring you right back again.
The most amazing part of this strategy of choosing to tell this story through Death’s eyes is the fact that Zusak was able to humanize the character. As Death struggles to understand humans, I found myself pitying the character. It’s Death’s job to collect all souls scattered across the world during WWII and it is a miserable job at that.
I know some readers will initially be turned off by the subject matter, but this is truly a remarkable story about the Holocaust. The Book Thief begins with Liesel and Death’s first encounter, the passing of her younger brother. After he is buried, Liesel makes her first theft by taking a handbook dropped by one of the grave diggers at the cemetary. She becomes more methodical with books she steals as the story wears on, but The Grave Digger’s Handbook was just the first of many thefts for young Liesel Meminger.
Lisel is taken to live with foster parents Rosa and Hans Huberman, better known as Mama and Papa. Rosa and Hans have older children that are out of the house, and are given some money to take Liesel in; however, it is not nearly enough to extract the family from poverty. The Huberman’s live on Himmel Street in Munich, Germany. The neighborhood does what it can to scrape by, but jobs is not easy to find with a nation at war. Hans is a painter that is often out of work and Rosa’s washing business is shrinking by the day. Times are tough and Hitler’s new regime is in full swing, but somehow, Liesel is able to push through the hunting memories of her brother dying and her mother disappearing, and is able to find love in her new family. She begins to gain a better understanding of the world she lives in as she comes of age throughout the story, and the reader can really see her grow from a naive child to very politically and morally aware young woman.
In my honest opinion, the plot and the writing alone make The Book Thief a story suitable for the classroom, and gives merit to the “new classic” title; however, at the center of it all, The Book Thief is very much a character driven story. Liesel is adorable, and she grows to be one of the most admirable characters I’ve ever read. Her inner circle extends out to her family and the rest of Himmel Street. Rosa Huberman is a plump, foul mouthed woman who slings German obscenities like daggers. Mama comes off as a harsh women, but it’s plain to see she does a lot of the things she does out of love. Hans is the character that often keeps her in check, sending winks toward Liesel in between Rosa’s tyraids. Papa is depicted as a kind hearted man with silver in his eyes. He shares countless heartwarming moments with Liesel over the course of our story here, and in the end, their relationship is the most important of all to Liesel. Hans helps Liesel through the nightmares she suffers from after losing her brother. He teaches her to read in the basement (despite being a poor reader himself) by writing difficult words on the wall with paint. Hans also plays the accordion like no other man can. In addition to her relationship with her foster parents, Lisel also likes to play soccer with her best friend and fellow young klepto, Rudy Steiner. Rudy looks like he could be the poster child for the Hitler regime in Germany with his blue eyes and “lemon head.” He’s a gifted athlete, and a surprisingly mature and profound character. Although Rudy and Liesel are constantly trading German insults at each other, the love in their relationship is evident.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll start wrap this up. This story is dark, yet beautiful. There are so many themes and character arches in this novel that I’d love to delve further into, but I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading experience. There is a lot take away from The Book Thief; however, I think the biggest (for lack of a better word) “take-away” is the impact and power of words. Zusak provides independent anecdotes and stories to show the way Hitler’s words shaped an entire nation, for better or worse. He showed how word affected Liesel, and just how much weight they can carry. As a writer that works almost exclusively for the Young Adult audience, I regard The Book Thief as one of the very best books I’ve ever read and I really do believe that this book is one of the most important stories of Young Adult Literature.