Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #19: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Continuing my habit of reading wildly popular books well after the height of their popularity, I finally got around to reading Markus Zusak’s The book Thief. Most of time, my reasons for avoiding best-sellers is financial; I usually wait for books to be available at the library or in paperback, but this time it was purposeful. I deliberately put off The Book Thief because, frankly, I’m sort of exhausted by the Holocaust. I know how important it is to keep the event in our minds and to remember what happened, but I do a Holocaust unit with my students each year, and it gets to be just a bit much sometimes. I needn’t have worried, though. I found The Book Thief to be a completely enchanting story with a unique perspective on the Holocaust.
For the very few people who haven’t read the novel, it focuses on a German girl, Liesel Meminger, whose life is drastically affected by the Holocaust and the war but not necessarily in the ways we expect. Liesel’s story begins with the death of her younger brother as they and their mother are on a train headed to a town on the outskirts of Munich where Liesel and her brother were to be adopted. When the boy dies, Death comes to take him and gets its first look at Liesel. Death then meets up with Liesel periodically and nicknames her the book thief after she steals The Grave Digger’s Handbook after her brother’s funeral. With the patient help and understanding of her adoptive father, Liesel learns to read from the handbook and, due to the family’s increasing financial distress in war-time Germany, she steals other books as well until she finally finds a place where she can read without having to resort to thievery. At the same time Liesel is discovering her love of reading, she’s dealing with the normal problems of childhood and the very abnormal problem of Hitler and the concentration camps. Not a camp victim herself, Liesel eventually understands that her biological parents were likely sent to the camps due to their belief (real or not, we never know) in Communism, and her adoptive father’s largely futile and mostly subtle resistance to the Nazi regime. Adding to the family’s distress is a grown son who completely supports Der Fuhrer, and, of course, a Jew they’re hiding in the basement.
The writing is compelling and beautiful, at times funny and at times heartbreaking. The narrator throughout is Death itself, and it (he?) is an interesting and unique narrator. I’ve read criticisms of the book that focus on the character of Liesel’s adoptive father as being too perfect to be believable, but I didn’t have that response to him. Most of the characters in the novel were good people in an impossible situation trying to do the best they could. At times, the story might not have been completely realistic, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. And, really, how much realism can one expect from a novel narrated by Death?
I loved this novel completely. Liesel’s story presented a different side of the Holocaust than I’ve read before. Most narratives focus on camp survivors, as they should, but other Germans are often ignored or depicted as willing participants. I’m sure many were, but I’d like to hope that there were a few like Liesel and her family. I found the book to be uplifting, despite many moments of intense grief and I would recommend it to anyone else who has been putting off reading it.