The Book Thief by Martin Zusak begins in the winter of 1939 in Germany with a glimpse of Liesel Meminger, who is nine. Her parents had been sent away for being Communists, and she and her brother were on their way to live with foster caretakers, but her brother died on the train. At her brother’s funeral, she finds a book buried in the snow and she takes it away with her. It marks the beginning of her preoccupation with acquiring books.
This story is not really about Liesel however, but about Death, who is the narrator, and how Death tries to come to terms with the mixture of ugliness and beauty in human beings. He uses Liesel, whom he refers to as “The Book Thief,” to illustrate his dilemma.
Liesel is a brief flame that lights the world of those around her: her new foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann; her best friend Rudy Steiner; Max Vandenburg, a fugitive Jew; and the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann. Rosa’s harshness is contrasted to the tenderness of Hans, but Liesel comes to love both Hubermanns and the life they create for her in the town on Molching, close to Dachau.
The pleasure that Liesel derives from words is a source of struggle for her; she must learn to accept that words can be a force of both good and evil. The book sets up a wonderful juxtaposition of how words are used by Hitler to destroy, and by Liesel to save herself and others.
Intriguingly, not much is said about God. Death says he speaks God’s name in a futile attempt to understand. But, “God never says anything.” And that’s all we learn about the Being that gives Death the job that keeps him exhausted, especially in wartime.
Occasionally, Death plays the part of a stand-up comic. But the story he tells is a heart-rending tragedy of life and love and death in The Third Reich. The fact that Death sees events as colors enables him to observe, in 1942, “For me, the sky was the color of Jews.”
It takes a while to adjust to the “inhumanity” of Death, and his constant interruptions of the narrative for commentary and collection of souls. He acts without reason, and his presence is inevitable. Tellingly, after a while, you get used to him.
In an interesting parallel from real life, in a diary kept by Chaim Kaplan (a writer, scholar and educator) while inside the Warsaw Ghetto (one of the sites where Jews were concentrated by the Nazis prior to their destruction), the rhythms of existence under the Nazi Regime were depicted in way similar to that of The Book Thief. In an entry from his journal on May 16, 1942, Kaplan wrote:
“Life in the ghetto is stagnant and frozen. There are walls around us; we have no space, no freedom of action. Whatever we do we do illegally; legally we don’t even have permission to exist. … Our lives – if this can be called living – have taken on their inert, monotonous forms and no changes occur in them. The only ones who bring some activity into the sordid life of the ghetto are the killer and his friend death – the killer with his decrees which are renewed from time to time, and death with his scythe.”
The narrator of The Book Thief would be pleased to be acknowledged, but sad and bewildered as well. The Book Thief is a lovely story, and a thought-provoking book.
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006