Our young protagonist Liesel Meminger is orphaned from her mother and witnesses her younger brother’s tragic death on one fateful train ride. The image of her brother’s lifeless eyes staring at the train floor haunt Liesel’s dreams long after she is placed in foster care. On the day of her brother’s funeral, Liesel steals her first book from the gravesite, and with the help of her adoring foster father Hans Hubermann, she slowly begins to learn to read. Liesel’s love for words carries her through the turmoil of World War II Germany as she finds ways to steal more books. First from a Nazi book burning in her little town square, and later from the library of the mayor’s wife, Liesel takes pride in her acquisitions and comfort in the words within them. When a young Jewish man arrives at her home seeking refuge for a vow promised long ago, Liesel bonds with him over their shared love for language. Later, when her world gets blown apart by the realities of war, Liesel is literally saved by her own writing.
In what is the most interesting literary device I’ve come across in a while, The Book Thief is narrated by Death. Death is a reliable and unemotional narrator who has seen all of the events in the book from a very unique bird’s eye view. He is not quite totally omniscient in that he doesn’t know the inner thoughts and feelings of all of the characters, but his voice is the perfect device for revealing details the reader absolutely needs to know without dumping a bunch of unnecessary backstory from an unrelated narrator. Death has visited most of the characters in the book in one way or another, either directly through their own brushes with death or by the death of those around them. As a narrator he is able to inform the reader of scenes and events that are occurring in other parts of the world just as easily as those happening in the direct action of the book. The result is a seamless storyline with all of the necessary details carefully placed along the way. Death himself is unemotional and matter-of-fact, which is the perfect voice for an overtly emotional novel about the atrocities of war. He is not sentimental, yet finds the beauty in each soul he takes away. At times I wished I could have been more inside of Liesel’s head to understand her emotions, but had the book been written from her point of view we would have missed out on the greater picture of war itself, which I think is more the point of the book.
I absolutely fell in love with this book. It is not a quick read in any way, but the writing is poetic and beautiful and the storyline is complex and heart-wrenching. From the very beginning of the novel I adored Liesel, who is smart and conscientious with big dreams and an even bigger heart. Her relationship with her foster father is so sweet. He loves the young girl so much and in every scene that has the two of them learning to read together I was enthralled. I also loved the young boy Rudy, who loved Liesel with all his heart and longs for a simple kiss. The way that he finally gets his wish broke my heart and left me in tears. I really enjoyed the narration by Death and found it to be the most interesting way of revealing plot. By the end of the novel not only did I love the characters, but I loved Death and his reactions to human behavior as well.
I think this book would be a very good way to discuss World War II in the classroom. The book is full of rich historical detail and facts that make it a good example of historical fiction. It also explores larger themes of survival and humanity in times of war. The book is a bit dense, with a lot of description, but the language is beautiful. I have many pages tagged for the absolutely stunning way that Zusak depicts a scene or expresses an emotion on the page. (One of my favorites: “She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.” Simply gorgeous.)
I highly recommend this book, but be sure to take your time and enjoy the beauty of the prose and the emotional impact of a lovely story.