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The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief is positioned as juvenile fiction, a story for teenage readers. Do not be put off by that appellation. There is little "juvenile" about this marvelous novel. The best novel I have read this year, it will challenge the most sophisticated reader. This is no Harry Potter and the Holocaust as Janet Maslin has suggested in her review in The New York Times.

While the telling of the story is done simply, there is nothing simple about the novel. It is complex and many-layered. Consider first the cover with a snaking row of dominoes and a finger about to push the first one over. Think of the layers of symbolism you, in your adult experience, can put to that image without reading the book. Read the book and relate it, in just one instance, to the events which led to the rise of Nazi Germany.

One of the great ironic metaphors of the novel is the use of Hitler's Mein Kampf. It appears from time to time to illustrate the struggles various characters endure as they grapple with the life presented them, a life which is often only a step away from the arms of Death. Max Vandenburg, for example, carries Mein Kampf as he travels across Germany to safety with the Hubermanns. The very presence of the book protects him from German soldiers.

The Book Thief is a memoir with a difference. Death is the narrator, but Death is no avenging angel come to strip Man of his dignity and rip him from the arms of loved ones. This Death is sentimental; he cares for souls; he is "haunted by humans." In one instance, Death is about to take a character but notes a resurgence of life. "It was nice to be fought off in that dark little room. I even managed a short, closed-eyed pause of serenity before I made my way out."
Death tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a 13-year old girl who has lost her family in the early stages of World War II. She comes to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann in Molching, just outside Munich, and very near Dachau. They strive to cope with the horrors that begin to envelope them, including hiding a Jew, who was the son of a man Hans fought alongside during the first war to end all wars.

Liesel is a book thief. She finds a book on grave digging while at her brother's funeral, and this book helps her maintain a link to her past. Early on she steals the remains of a book from a pile of books which the Savonarolean Nazis had burned. She later steals from the Mayor's wife, but learns that she was aiding her in this effort. At a time when ideas are being routinely quashed, Liesel is striving for knowledge. And, it is this search, her "thefts," and the confluence with the Mayor's wife which ultimately brings salvation to Liesel.
Elegant Phrases

It would be worthwhile to read The Book Thief for the elegant turns of phrase scattered throughout. Death says, "It kills me sometimes, how people die." In another instance, Death notes that soldiers running into battle thought they were running into the arms of battle toward other young men, but "They are not. They're running at me." "A bandaged hand fell out of his coat sleeve and cherries of blood were seeping through the wrapping…. (T)hree hours later…the cherries of blood had grown into plums." In every instance, these images conjure just the right feel for the situation. The writing is never overblown, though simple examples removed from their context may seem so.

Enduring Thought

I seldom return immediately to a book. I read it, think about it and place it on a shelf. I am done with it. The Book Thief has struck a chord I cannot quite identify. It has remained on my desk for some time now. I have reopened it and read random passages to enjoy the plot, to think of the deeper story it tells, and to luxuriate in the richness of the language. I am haunted by this book.
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