The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Narrelle’s Colum, by Narrelle

A young girl walks up a street of rubble as the spirit of Death carries away the souls of nearly everyone she knows. In her hands is her story. This is a scene from the last chapter of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Her story, the story of Liesel Meminger, is a story of compassion, hatred, brotherhood, thievery, love, cruelty, kindness, freedom, war, family, and death. The Book Thief is narrated by the spirit of Death.

Set in Germany, The Book Thief provides a very human perspective on World War II from the viewpoint of those living inside Hitler’s Reich. Liesel Meminger is a nine year-old girl when the novel begins, and she has just lost her brother on the way to start a new life. Her childhood has been a recollection of “boardinghouses crammed with people, rooms filled with questions,” and “that strange word, standing in the corner, watching from the dark”: Communist. Her parents were communists, and for that reason Liesel and her brother are sent away to a foster family. Her brother dies en route, and, at his funeral, Liesel steals her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, which she picks up after its owner drops it in the snow. She arrives on the impoverished Himmel Street to find the stout, no-nonsense Rosa and the kind, loving Hans Hubermann, her new Mama and Papa. Her neighbor Rudy, a boy with “hair the color of lemons”, becomes infatuated with her and befriends her instantly. After a few months, Liesel settles into her new life, for the first time happy and at home. But a black cloud looms over them, waiting to erupt, and that black cloud is the Führer.

Through long, sleepless nights, a patient, loving hand, and a paintbrush in the basement, Papa teaches Liesel how to read. Before long she has read not only The Grave Digger’s Handbook, but also anything else she can get her hands on, and often this comes down to thievery. Her second crime occurs at a book burning. Amidst shouts of “Heil, Hitler” and denunciations of Jews and Communists, Liesel steals her second book. The mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann, sees her, and, the next time Liesel comes to deliver her mother’s washing and ironing, invites her inside her home to read the books in her library.

Around them, darkness has come to Germany. On Himmel Street, after the night of Kristallnacht, the Jews gradually leave or are taken away. One night, a young man shows up on the Hubermanns’ doorstep, starving and exhausted. The young man is a Jewish boy named Max, whose father saved Hans’ life long ago in World War I. Now, another world war has given Hans the opportunity to repay his debt. The Hubermanns take on great personal risk by hiding Max in their basement. If he is found, they will be imprisoned, most likely taken to a labor camp.

Liesel’s life becomes a blend of wandering the streets with Rudy, reading in the mayor’s library, and spending time in the basement with Max. Max becomes her friend and writes Liesel a book about his life and their friendship. He falls ill from staying in the cold basement, and Liesel reads to him, praying that he will get better. The Hubermanns find themselves worrying about what they will do with his body if he dies. Thankfully, he recovers, much to their relief. Meanwhile, Ilsa Hermann fires Liesel’s mother and, in retaliation, Liesel begins to sneak through the window to steal books from her library.

One day, a parade of Jews is marched through the streets, and Liesel, Rudy, and Hans watch in horror as the starving, emasculated men, women, and children stumble along while the Nazi soldiers point guns at them. Hans cannot restrain his compassion and gives a piece of bread to a man about to collapse from hunger. Both the man and Hans are whipped. Hans is horrified by what he has done, for now he is certain that the Gestapo will take him away and search their house. It is no longer safe for Max to stay with them, and he leaves that night. Hans, overcome with guilt, waits for the Gestapo to come, but they never do. Instead, he is drafted into the army and must leave immediately. Max has left for nothing.

Max leaves behind a second book for Liesel, “The Word Shaker”, a story cherishing the sanctity of their friendship and at the same time carrying an important message about the persecution of his people. Rudy’s father, meanwhile, is also drafted into the army for refusing to send Rudy to a Nazi school, where he’d be trained to become part of the Aryan “master race”. Rudy and Liesel are both upset by the loss of their fathers, and for Liesel also her friend, and proclaim that they hate the Führer. Fortunately for Liesel, however, after a few months Hans is injured and sent to a desk job near home.

The parades of Jews continue, and now Liesel runs to the street every time she hears their marching footsteps so that she can search the crowd for Max. A few days after her father’s return, Liesel’s anxious speculation ends when she spots Max marching in the street, looking malnourished and ghastly. Liesel walks with him, joining the parade, and he cries into her hand until he is whipped standing in the street. The soldier whips Liesel next, and Rudy must hold her back to prevent her from running after Max.

As the events of her life come to a head, Liesel finds a new activity, writing. Writing becomes the outlet for expressing all her thoughts and feelings, and she begins to record her story in the basement, just like Max did. She finishes writingThe Book Thief, but one night, as she reads it in the basement, her life changes forever. The war is nearly over, but for Liesel, there can be no going back. Standing amidst the rubble of her home, the sole survivor of the bombing of Himmel Street, she sees the spirit of Death. He watches her, fascinated with the living. Death ends the novel with the only fact he knows to be true: “I am haunted by humans.”

The Book Thief is one of the saddest, most moving, and most edifying novels I have ever read. Through the eyes of a child, the reader is taken on a journey in a time of horror, sorrow, and cruelty. The writing pulls you into a world that is unimaginable and yet almost exactly like the real Germany during those dark years. While I was writing this, I couldn’t resist going back and reading some of my favorite parts of the novel, and they were just as fresh the second time as they had been the first. You will laugh as well as cry with the characters as you read about the sharp personality of Rosa Hubermann, the antics of Rudy and Liesel, and the soft-spoken courage of Max. You will also feel their fear as they watch the street anxiously for signs of the Gestapo coming to search their house. While The Book Thief is sad, it is also uplifting, because it shows that often the best in people emerges in times of horror. From the Hubermanns’ sheltering of Max to Hans’ standing up for a starving Jew to Rudy’s giving a teddy bear to a dying pilot, many of the characters in The Book Thief commit great acts of courage and kindness amidst the cruelty and horror in their homeland. It is their goodness, rather than the Nazi’s cruelty, that is ultimately the message the reader takes away from the novel.

In having Death narrate the story, the author has made a true accomplishment in augmenting the emotional and intellectual impact of the story. As a narrator, Death is truly omnipotent, and is able to provide a perspective much wider than Liesel’s or any of the other character’s. By making Death a kind, caring narrator, the author also softened the blow of the deaths of so many of the main characters. Instead of being brutally murdered, their souls were softly carried away in his caring arms. Death is personal and empathetic, portrayed not as an oppressor but as a victim of circumstances, forced to do the work of war. Death also frequently reminds the reader that death is inevitable. He gives the reader several previews of the death and destruction that lies ahead, even opening one chapter by saying that Rudy will be dead in two years. This further prevents the reader from being shocked and distraught by the events of the final few chapters.

Throughout The Book Thief, words hold a place of prevalence and honor. Words connect characters not only to each other but also to their morals and ideals. Liesel’s fascination with books brings her closer to Hans, Ilsa Hermann, and Max. The books Max writes for Liesel teach her important life lessons. Furthermore, the prevalence of words in The Book Thief represents a historical truth applicable to not only World War II but also to countless other points in history. In The Word Shaker, Max makes a startling observation that Hitler has used words, not guns, to enslave the German people and start a world war. There is also a great deal of duality about the meaning of words, beginning with the Nazis. Words are both their greatest weapon and their greatest fear. At the book burning Liesel witnesses, they burn words out of the fear of the ideas that the words could bring to the German people, ideas that conflicted with the roots of Nazism. At the same time, they have used words to manipulate the German people into believing they are the “master race”, giving them reasons to persecute the Jews and worship Hitler. The Nazis love words, but only their words, no one else’s. Words also hold a dual meaning for Liesel. She loves words because they are her sanctuary from the outside world as well as her bond with Hans and Max. Later, after she sees Max marching to the concentration camp, she rips up a book in anger and frustration, striving to destroy the words that she feels represent the sorrows that have torn her world apart. Ultimately, words become her outlet of expression, and they save her life. She was down in the basement reading her work when the bombs hit Himmel Street, just far enough underground for her life to be spared.

In The Book Thief, the line between bravery and cowardice, defiance and submission, is often blurred by ironic circumstances. Rudy’s father tries to save Rudy by preventing him from going to the Aryan school, and he is drafted into the army as punishment. By trying to save his son’s life, he in fact allowed him to die. If Rudy had been away at the school, he wouldn’t have been on Himmel Street when it was bombed, and he might have lived. When Hans tries to give a starving man a piece of bread, he is acting with compassion and bravery. In reality, this was a foolish act that only harmed the man more and endangered both Max and his family. On the other hand, if Max had stayed in the Hubermanns’ basement, he might not have survived the bombing and could have died. Instead, he survived the concentration camp and came home to Liesel. All these instances illustrate that, in war, the difference between right and wrong is far from black and white.

One of the more startling and subtle truths The Book Thief has to tell is that many of the men fighting and dying for Hitler were not evil. They were just as innocent as those who perished in the concentration camps, in air raids, and in the Allies’ army. Many of them had been enslaved by words, while others, like Hans and Rudy’s father, were sent to fight because they refused to submit. When we look back on history, we often think of the Germans as the criminals and the oppressors, but in fact, it was only a select few who kept the greater population enchained by ignorance and fear. It makes us wonder about the futility of war when, in fact, the men who killed each other and died on the battlefield had nothing against each other and far more in common than either of them knew.

In October 2013, The Book Thief hit the theaters as a major motion picture. From the vivid imagery of Nazi Germany to the sharp personalities of the characters, the movie captured the spirit of the book perfectly, leaving out only a few minor details in the plot. The Book Thief, however, is no exception to the mantra, “The book is always better than the movie.” If you want to truly learn The Book Thief’s lessons of hope, courage, and perseverance, I recommend that you read the book. By watching a movie, you simply cannot go on journeys with characters, feel their pain and sorrow, and witness the wonders they have to offer the way you can from reading a book.

The Book Thief deals with heavy topics through the eyes of people we can relate to. It is written primarily for an adult and young adult audience, but it is also a good read for preadolescents just beginning to learn about World War II and the Holocaust. Unlike most other novels of its kind, it illustrates how the war affected average German citizens living on the home front. Its themes and lessons are timeless, teaching us about not only our past but also our present and what we can do to shape our future. Ultimately, it is a story not of sorrow and suffering but of kindness, perseverance, love, and compassion. Only when all men and women have learned its inner message of harmony and goodness will we truly be on the path away from the dark days of the Führer and towards an era when no person will have to suffer the way the men and women of World War II and the characters of The Book Thief did.

Works Cited:

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Random House, Inc., 2005. iBooks file.

Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics. 

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