Author: Markus Zusak
Genre: Young Adult
Death narrates this story about Liesel Meminger, a young spunky girl living outside of Munich with her foster parents during World War II. Liesel’s foster father Hans teaches her to read slowly each night starting with The Gravedigger’s Handbook, a book Liesel stole from a graveyard. This is the first of many books Liesel steals. She treasures every book for its literary quality and uses her words to comfort herself and others during this tragic time. Some of the people who care for her include her accordion-playing, cigarette-rolling step-father Hans; her foster mother Rosa, a wardrobe of a woman with an infamous temper and habit of cussing; Max, a fist-fighting Jew with a talent for story-telling; and Rudy, a boy with hair the color of lemons who is undoubtedly in love with Liesel. Despite the games Liesel and the other children play, war is not a game and this is a very dangerous time for Germans, especially those hiding a Jew in their basement. Even death seems to pity Liesel for all she endures.
This story is incredibly compelling, especially with Death being the narrator. Although it is classified as a ‘Young Adult’ book it doesn’t seem as though it was designed for younger readers. The Book Thief can be enjoyed by adults and children alike. I could hardly put this book down. Within the first few chapters Zusak had me falling in love with the characters, especially Hans whose love for his family was unwavering. It’s an interesting account of World War II in Germany since it focuses on those of German-descent who were caught somewhere in the middle – not hating Jews, but not being able to help them either. It’s hard to summarize without giving too much away, but this story will stick with you. Zusak really takes time to fully develop his characters so that they feel like real people to you and your own friends by the end. While I thought the book was an easy read (and one that demands you don’t stop), it is very well-written and contains a lot of symbolism, metaphors, and interesting imagery for those who care to look.
A few moments with Hans
Liesel’s foster father loves her dearly, but there are a few moments in this book when he intentionally upsets her that speak to the severity of fear Germans felt during this time. Liesel becomes upset on the street one day and says that she hates the Fuhrer. Instead of comforting her, Hans slaps her. This is a man who would never lay a hand on his family and would fight anyone who tried to hurt them. He does this after having a huge internal conflict and it upsets him just as much as it upsets Liesel. However, it is necessary. He tells her “Don’t ever say that! […] You can say that in our house, but you can never say it on the street, at school, at the BDM, never!” Then he makes her practice saying “Heil Hitler!” Hans is a man who hates Hitler just as much, if not more, than Liesel does, but he is forced to behave in this way to ensure Liesel’s safety and her understand the gravity of such claims.
Another similar incident occurs when Hans explicitly tells Liesel that if she tells anyone about the Jew in their basement him and Rosa will be taken away and Liesel will be taken away from them. He threatens to burn all of her books if she spills a single word. He continues telling her how they will be dragged away until she is sobbing, but he had to be sure that she would not breathe a word because all of their lives were on the line if she did. I think these moments speak a lot about the atmosphere of Germany during World War II. I can’t imagine living in such constant fear and paranoia of my family’s safety.
“German children were on the lookout for stray coins. German Jews kept watch for possible capture.” p. 169
“I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they’re running at other young men. They are not. They’re running at me.” – Death on War, p. 175
“I do not carry a sickle or a 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 truly look like? I’ll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue.” p. 307
“Five hundred souls. I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I’d throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms.” – Death, p. 336
“It’s probably fair to say that in all the years of Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve the Fuhrer as loyally as me. A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die.” – Death, p. 401
“I am haunted by humans.” – Death, p. 550
My Final Reaction
I sobbed. I never cry while reading books. The last 20 minutes I spent reading this book I was sobbing. And now I can’t stop thinking about it. I really loved it though. It’s going on my favorite books list, that only exists in my mind, and is right up there with The Shadow of the Wind and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Go out and read it already!