Review: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

the_book_thief_by_markus_zusak_book_coverA little behind the eight-ball here, but I (finally) read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Being a middle school/high school teacher, coming this late to the party is a little bit of an embarrassment for me. EVERYONE I worked with had read this book.

Ha. I’m kidding. Many of them, like the students, mostly just saw the movie. 😉 (I haven’t seen it, but I’ll watch it now. You know, to compare and determine that the book is waaaay better, as inevitably happens!)

But I did have a STUDENT who had read it and told me what a great book it was, so I decided to read it over the holiday break.

So, first, I should tell you, at 540 pages, according to my Kindle, it took me a week to read. That’s a long time for me, BTW. Usually, I can read a 350 page book in an evening and night combo. And I had some downtime to read during the day, which never happens when school is in. (Not much mind you! I do have young children! 🙂 )

Anyway, I mention how long it took me to read because…it was a hard book for me to get into, I guess. Usually, if I’m not absorbed with the book within 50 pages, I generally toss it aside for another book. It took about 100 pages for The Book Thief to capture me, but once it did, I was well and truly caught.

“How many had actively persecuted others, high on the scent of Hitler’s gaze, repeating his sentences, his paragraphs, his opus? Was Rosa Hubermann responsible? The hider of a Jew? Or Hans? Did they all deserve to die? The children?

“The answer to each of these questions interests me very much, though I cannot allow them to seduce me. I only know that all of those people sensed me that night, excluding the youngest of the children. I was the suggestion. I was the advice, my imagined feet walking into the kitchen and down the corridor.” —The Book Thief, pages 375-376

In The Book Thief, Death is our narrator, describing his fascination with Liesel Meminger, a German girl during World War II. Now, this was interesting to me. I’ve read plenty of books set during WWII, but never from the perspective of poverty-stricken Germans. Or, rather, from the perspective of Death looking at poverty-stricken Germans. It shows how little control the people of a nation have in the face of a destructively evil government; I had never really thought about the German people before, who are shown here with little power over their own lives during this time. For this interesting perspective alone, I would suggest this book.

But there is more to recommend it. Turns out, that while Death is claiming an obsession with Liesel, he’s really fascinated with the cast of characters that are interwoven throughout her life from the years 1939-1943 in Nazi Germany. Given to a foster family, Liesel encounters characters who are complex and rich in their development—way more complex, in fact, than Liesel herself. She is rather, like Death becomes to us, the curator of these lives—including a man whose empathy defies the Nazis in little ways that he does not even understand, a woman whose outward ferocity and hardness conceals her true compassionate nature, a young Jewish boxer who is forced to hide away while fighting the Fuhrer in his dreams, and a boy whose spirit and vivacity cannot be destroyed by the dehumanizing poverty he (and, in fact, all of the characters) faces. Of them all, that boy, Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s best friend, is by far my, and I think Death’s, favorite.

And, of course, there are the books. Liesel steals them. They become symbols of the significant moments in her life. Not because of what they are about, but  because of the events that made her take them. The books become her memories, her photographs, of those moments, reminding her of those instances, allowing her not only to learn how to read but attach those memories and the people and events to her soul, creating a powerful definition of survival among the destruction that surrounds the poverty-ridden in Nazi Germany.

I will say this. I think this book is the definition of post-modernism. It is told from the perspective of Death, who is tormented by humans and the destruction of WWII. It was painful to read in parts because Death visits concentration camps and others beyond the characters of Himmel Street, Liesel’s home during this period. Plus, it is not told, necessarily, in sequential order. It cuts in here and there with observances from Death and his foretelling of the future of many of the characters.

I’m not going to lie. This book was difficult to read because of its subject matter, and I had to put it down many times to mull over the actions and reactions within the book. But it’s not a book I regret reading. It made me think; it made me cry and smile; it made me want, desperately, to have someone with whom to discuss the book. And, I think that is a hallmark of a piece of great literature, don’t you?

Until next time, my literature lovers,

HMichaele

Oh, and P.S.: There is an additional book thief by the end of the book. 😉