The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Markus Zusak’s social/historical novel, The Book Thief, follows the citizens of Himmel Street in Molching, Germany between 1939 and 1943.  In particular, he logs the fortunes and misfortunes of Hans and Rosa Hubermann and their foster child, Liesel Meminger, the book thief. A town near Munich, Molching often witnesses shambles of Jews and other enemies of the state as the Nazis prod them toward Dachau.

“A procession of tangled people.”

“A cauldron swimming with humans.”

“They streamed by, like human water.”

“With bones like smoke and their souls trailing behind.”

“So many sets of dying eyes and scuffing feet.”

“Their eyes were enormous in their starving skulls.”

The protagonist, Liesel, and her preteen and early teen friends participate in compulsory Hitler Youth meetings, endure nights in air-raid shelters, and slurp pea soup for supper every evening. To lift youthful spirits, the children play football in the streets, build snowmen and steal food for the body and the mind.  Some days Liesel joins an orchard- raiding gang, but she prefers to climb stealthily through an open window into the mayor’s mansion to filch books. These adventures win her unusual friends and build her reputation among her peers.

Hans, her “Papa,” teaches Liesel to read her stolen books. In turn, her reading from her stolen treasures calms her adult neighbors assembled in the air-raid shelter, as the Allied bombers hover above.

Her readings, her conversations with a Jewish friend, and her community’s exposure to Nazi ultra-nationalism and brutality teach her the power of words. She learns that Hitler’s verbal seeds of hate and fear—e.g., “A nation cleans out its garbage and makes itself great”—have grown into a forest of a toxic antisemitism and militarism.  She believes that “without words, the Fuhrer was nothing.”

The intensity of the story escalates to a dramatic conclusion as Liesel and her friends mount protests, leading to physical and political reprisals.

This young adult novel stands on the bleak side of the emotional spectrum. As if the novel’s time, place and circumstances weren’t dreary enough, Zusak chose Death as its narrator. Death speaks directly to the reader as if cultivating sympathy for itself. It seems overworked as it gathers souls from battlefields, concentration camps, and cities targeted by bombers. It still manages to narrate this tale and develop an affection and admiration for Liesel, her adoptive family, and friends.

Death clarifies the value of the small things in life and bids the reader grasps the lasting impact behind seemingly meaningless or even adversarial relationships. Death urges us to appreciate persons and significant objects while we are still able to communicate our love and feelings.

Amid the dark, cold narrative, author Markus Zusak flashes jolts of incongruity, hybrids between oxymorons and Zen koans.

“The taste of a whisper.”

“The chitchat of faraway guns.”

“Suitcases under the eyes.”

“His starving arms.”

“Her wrinkles were like slander.”

“Their voices kneaded methodically at the door.”

It’s not only the sum of Zusak’s plot and characters but these poetic details that shape the greatness of The Book Thief.