The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl living in a small town near Munich during World War II. There have been a variety of other children's and young adults books that tackle World War II. The Book Thief is unique because of the choice of narrator and because of the author's voice. The narrator of the book is Death, and he has quite a unique perspective. As for the author's voice, Markus Zusak is a genius in his use of language. By the time I was 80 pages in, I wanted to go back and start over again, so that I could experience the early parts of the book again.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:
- "Every childhood seems to have such a juvenile in its midst and mists" -- page 49
- "You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost an eye" from heil Hitlering -- page 111.
- "The secret sat in her mouth. It made itself comfortable. It crossed its legs." -- page 246
- "You're human. You should understand self-obsession." -- page 307
- "The sound of crying children kicked and punched." -- page 380
- "Her feet scolded the floor." -- page 428
These are just a selection out of countless clever phrases and ideas sprinkled on every page. The narrative structure of the story is complex, told with flashforwards and flashbacks, and inset with asides and quotations, and occasionally with excerpts from hand-made books. But the story itself is actually fairly simple. The Book Thief depicts World War II from the perspective of ordinary German citizens, and from the perspective of young Liesel, who is far from ordinary. And, we see World War II from Zusak's envisioned Death, who had a lot of work to do during those years. The Book Thief is also a window into the dangers that World War II held for non-Jews, and particularly what happened to those who spoke up too late.
Liesel is most definitely a cool girl of children's literature. She's brave, funny, loyal and caring. She steals books a) because she loves them with a passion that she can scarcely express and b) because it feels good to take something back, after all she has lost. She reads books aloud in a neighborhood bomb shelter. And above all, she survives, despite terrible losses. The other characters in the book are also well-drawn, with some of the most complex (like Liesel's foster mother) offering the greatest rewards. Max, a young Jewish man in hiding, is an especially sympathetic character, as are Liesel's Papa, and her best friend Rudy.
I am normally a devourer of books (I recently read and reviewed 10 books in 48 hours), but I read this one fairly slowly, because I enjoyed the writing so much. The characters felt so real that I wanted to spend more time with them. I also kept having to stop to jot down phrases that struck me as particularly brilliant. Towards the end I did read faster, as the tension of the story got to me. I'm certain that I'll have to go back and re-read soon, to examine more of the details.
So here's the bottom line. I know that it doesn't sound like a fun book, from the short description: World War II in Germany, narrated by Death, about a girl who steals books. And it's not an upbeat story, to be sure. But it's a moving story about a great character, with some of the most remarkable and distinctive writing you'll ever read. It has my highest recommendation.
Book: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Original Publication Date: 2006
Age Range: 14 and up
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.