Book Review: The Book Thief

TheBookThiefby Anniel   9/6/14
Author: Marcus Zusak. A Borzoi Book by Random House Children’s Books. 2005. Also available on Kindle.  •  I am constantly astounded at the adult themes and gorgeous writing in what is called Children’s Literature today. I will even admit that I have been unable to read and enjoy any other book by this author, but Mr. Zusak has earned a place in my personal Book Heaven for the sheer beauty and inventiveness he brought to The Book Thief.

I absolutely reject the idea that this is any kind of a “Children’s Book.” Any book that states baldly as one of its first premises that, “You are going to die,” is not made for most children. And you can safely ignore the movie made of this book. It’s mildly interesting, but hardly up to the task of conveying so many psychological ideas – anti-semitism; control by words; good/evil; Hitler and his agenda; and much else. But I seem to be talking out of both sides of my brain here.

The opening of this book introduces us to the Narrator, the entity of Death as a personal being, who tries to make the experience of death as beautiful as possible for each soul he releases. He tries to be as disinterested as possible but there are those who escape death from time to time, sometimes more than once, and these souls fascinate him. He, using the sex rather loosely here, also clues the reader in on the importance of the colors he sees and which ones he prefers as he loosens the souls and consigns them to eternity. His comments about his accomplishments throughout the book make the history of the time he narrates personal and understandable. He also lets his readers know that he only encounters the Book Thief three times but has access to other knowledge about her.

The story is of Liesel Meminger, a child of a communist father and a very ill mother. Liesel is traveling by train with her mother and younger brother to a small town in Germany where she and her brother are to stay with a foster family. Liesel wakes in time to see her brother die. Death takes his soul away but becomes fascinated by the girl, watches what happens to her and returns to watch the burial of her brother. A young grave digger drops a book in the snow and Liesel steals the book, hides it and takes it to her foster home on Himmel {Heaven} street, in a town named Molching.

This is Liesel on her arrival at Himmel Street: “you could still see the bite marks of snow on her hands and the frosty blood on her fingers. Everything about her was undernourished. Wirelike shins. Coat hanger arms. She did not produce it easily, but when it came, she had a starving smile.”

Liesel’s foster parents, Hans and Rosa Huberman, are very different from each other. Hans has already cheated death in WWI, so Death is aware of him. He is a good and patient man who teaches Liesel about love, music and honor. He also painstakingly teaches her to read from her stolen book, A Grave Diggers Manual. Death says of Hans: He was “an unspecial person. Certainly his painting skills were excellent. His musical ability was better than average. Somehow, though, and I’m sure you’ve met people like this, he was able to appear as merely part of the background, even if he was standing at the head of the line. He was always just there. Not visible. Not important or particularly valuable.” But Liesel looks into his eyes and sees, “They were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting. Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Huberman was worth a lot.”

The mother, Rosa, is short and square, Death tells us that she is a terrible cook and swears with great fluency. I do not like the use of profanity in literature, but in this case it is mostly rendered in German and it seems less ugly to me, although I really do know its ugliness. Death also says of the Rosa that “she had a face decorated with constant fury,” and “she possessed the unique ability to aggravate almost everyone she ever met. But she did love Liesel Meminger. Her way of showing it just happened to be strange. It involved bashing her with wooden spoon and words at various intervals.”

This, then is the home on Himmel Street, from which Liesel will go out into her neighborhood, school and community in Nazi Germany and learn to accept love, hate and further loss. She must join the Hitler Youth; play with other children, both good and bad; fight for food and possessions; learn to read; steal more books (of necessity), and find acceptance at school. Then one day Hans brings into their home a Jew they must hide in the basement and Liesel must keep him a secret, even from her best friend. And we find that Rosa is a good friend to have in a pinch.

Beyond her relationship with the Hubermans, the following things and people form the bedrock of Liesel’s life:

Her neighbor and best friend, Rudy (“Insane or not, Rudy was always destined to be Liesel’s best friend. A snowball in the face is surely the beginning to a perfect friendship.”)

Hans Huberman’s accordion.

The Mayor’s reclusive and mourning wife, and her library.

The Jew in the basement, Max Vandenburg. Max is the one person who can fully understand Liesel’s continued grief over loss of her brother and mother, and her guilt for surviving. He shares those same losses and guilt.

The Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler. The backdrop for all evil done in his behalf.

A complete cast of supporting and wonderful characters, who seen fully realized with just a few brush strokes.

Books, always books. Stolen, borrowed, gifted, written.

Food, and the hunt for and stealing of food.

Everything in Liesel’s life is fraught with fear and the giving and taking of trust and love. Her predicaments are by turns heart breaking, beautiful and very dangerous.

The entity known as Death narrates and shares his thoughts throughout the book. He makes clear the history and dreams of all the characters in such a way that readers share in the holocaust, spiritual and physical, taking place around them.

An entry from Death’s Diary:

On June 23, 1942, there was a group of French Jews in a German prison, on Polish soil. The first person I took was close to the door, his mind racing, then pacing, slowing down, slowing down . . . .

Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up every soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their vanishing words. I watched their love visions and freed them from their fear.

I took them all away, and if ever there was a time I needed distraction, this was it. In complete desolation, I looked at the world above. I watched the sky as it turned from silver to gray to the color of rain. Even the clouds were trying to get away.

Sometimes I imagined how everything looked above those clouds, knowing without question that the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye.

They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.

This is Death’s account of taking Hans Huberman:

He was tall in the bed and I could see the silver through his eyelids. His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do- the best ones. The ones who rise up and say, “I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I am ready to come.” Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places. This one was sent out by the breath of an accordion, the odd taste of champagne in summer, and the art of promise-keeping. There was an itchy lung for a last cigarette and an immense, magnetic pull toward the basement, for the girl who was his daughter and was writing a book down there that he hoped to read one day.

Death’s last entries have to do with the meeting with and taking of Liesel Meminger yesterday in a town in New Zealand. He returns to her the life story she had written in her last weeks living on Himmel Street. Death knows her story and says:

I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race- that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and so brilliant.

None of those things, however, came out of my mouth.

All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know. I said it to the book thief and I say it now to you.

. . . A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR . . .

I am haunted by humans.

And Marcus Zusak has done the incredible, taught the beauty of life by simultaneously teaching the beauty of Death. • (1079 views)

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3 Responses to Book Review: The Book Thief

  1. Anniel says:

    Brad – I sent an email, but maybe you’ll get it here first. For some reason the last three paragraphs don’t belong here at all. Please remove everything after the words “the beauty of death.” I went back and checked and they should not have been on what I forwarded.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Got it. There’s a fair amount of cutting-and-pasting behind the scenes in order to carry over the boilerplate stuff and general formating. Got too much this time. 🙂

  2. Anniel says:

    Thanks. I just got a notice that some virus thingy needs to be updated here. Bear will need to look at it.

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