The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is an unusual story set within the often frightening and incomprehensible world of Nazi Germany. The element of historical fact makes The Book Thief an excellent choice for schools, reading groups and homeschooling. However, Zusak's unique storytelling, lovely writing and charming characters make it worthy of a look from anyone who appreciates excellent literature.
The Book Thief is set in Molching, a fictional German town close to the real city of Munich. Molching is about 10 miles from Dachau, the infamous concentration camp. Although this detail is important, the tale never takes the reader to Dachau. Within Molching, much of the action occurs on Himmel Street (Himmel translates as Heaven) where the main character, Liesel Meminger, otherwise known as the Book Thief, lives.
Liesel Moves to the Hubermann's
The story begins in 1939 with Liesel traveling by train to Molching with her mother, who is a mysterious character, and her sick brother. The plan is for both children to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann who live at 33 Himmel Street. Liesel's brother dies, and so it is only the grieving girl who becomes the Hubermann's foster child.
Death, the Narrator
From 1939 until midway through 1943, Liesel's life is chronicled by an unusual narrator: Death. Zusak's Death is not the stereotypical, scythe-wielding character of legend, but a more laid-back, sensitive guy. Throughout these war years, Liesel, with her best friend Rudy constantly in tow, plays soccer, learns to read with the help of her foster father, and of course, steals a few books.
Although not without its charm, life is challenging on Himmel Street. The sun barely seems to shine during this Nazi-influenced era, and Liesel, the Hubermanns, Rudy and all the street's residents are constantly on the verge of starvation. Then, when a young Jewish man named Max seeks refuge in the Hubermann's basement, life in 33 Himmel Street becomes just a little more complicated.
The Book Thief features several memorable characters. Some of the most important are:
- Death: The narrator of the tale is thoughtful and profound. He makes for a superb historian as long as you are mainly interested in how and where people die! Although he admits to a fascination with Liesel, he is, by nature of his job, often found flitting around the globe as he collects his souls.
- Liesel Meminger: The Book Thief is a skinny, illiterate girl who reveals a surprising aptitude for soccer, fighting and thievery. When she learns to read with the help of Hans Hubermann, she discovers a love for literature and writing.
- Rosa Hubermann: Liesel's foster mother is rude and brash, but the reader quickly suspects this rudeness is just the top layer of an otherwise amiable personality. She casually (and daily) refers to her husband and foster daughter as filthy pigs - saukerl and saumensch respectively in German.
- Hans Hubermann: Liesel's enchanting foster father is a painter and part-time accordion player who possesses the sensitivity of the most modern of modern men. For much of the story, Hans does not seem to sleep, rather spending his time comforting Liesel as she wakes each night from the throes of yet another nightmare and afterward teaching her to read. He is not talkative, probably a direct consequence of living with Rosa's unfiltered and uncensored monologues.
- Rudy Steiner: Liesel's best friend and neighbor has hair the color of lemons and is obsessed with American athlete of the era Jesse Owens. Rudy is a good friend to Liesel (no doubt she thinks he would be a better friend if he stopped asking for those kisses) and joins her in several of her stealing escapades.
- Max Vandenburg is the Jewish son of a man who saved the life of Hans Hubermann in World War I. Max needs a place to hide, and his mother tells him about Hans and his promise to help the Vandenburg family. When Max turns up in the kitchen of 33 Himmel Street, the Hubermanns conceal him in their basement for part of the war years.
According to the New York Times, parents should know The Book Thief was published in Australia with an adult audience in mind. It does, after all, have an adult theme. However, this book is aimed at young adults in the United States and might also appeal to mature, middle-grade students who are fascinated by the subject. Scholastic suggests the interest level for The Book Thief is eighth grade and up, while its reading level is fourth grade, making it a great high interest, low reading level book.
Most reviews have been positive, though the book is not unanimously praised.
- Common Sense Media describes the book as "powerful" and "a triumph of spirit and humanity" but warns parents it contains a great deal of sadness as well as references to drinking, drugs and some bad language.
- The Independent states the novel is a fresh approach to the Holocaust. Although The Independent admits The Book Thief is not a story possessing unexpected or hidden depths, it acknowledges Death, particularly a complex, sympathetic Death, makes for an unanticipated and worthwhile narrator. It concedes keeping the plot simple is likely to make it more appealing to young adults. It also admits Liesel will move many readers to tears.
- Lit Lovers features several reviews of The Book Thief on its site, with the consensus that, while Zusak has written a story at times grim and sad, it is also poetic, hopeful and uplifting.
- The New York Times writes a more critical review, complaining Death is "innocuous" rather than sensitive. It suggests the action could move a little faster in places and that Hans Hubermann is an "implausible" character. However, in the last paragraph of the review, the writer admits he enjoyed the book which he describes as "life changing."
The Book Thief has won several awards, including:
- The ALA Best Books for Young Adults in 2007
- The Kathleen Mitchell Award in 2006
- The Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Children's Literature in 2007 (which became the Indies Choice Book Award in 2009)
- The National Jewish Book Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature in 2006
A Great Read
The Book Thief is a unique and experimental piece of literature. It deals with an unhappy era in a sensitive and compelling way. You can purchase it on Amazon.com in paperback, Kindle format and as an audio cd. There is also a 10th-anniversary edition at Barnes and Noble in hardcover, Nook version and an audio book. This story may suck you in and leave you breathlessly unable to stop reading. Have a box of tissues beside you just in case!