Review: The Book Thief

Markus Zusak (2005)

This is the story of Liesel Meminger, a German girl living with foster parents in a suburb of Munich during World War II. When Liesel arrives on the doorstep of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, she’s frightened, illiterate and alone in the world. The nine-year-old has also committed her first act as the Book Thief, having taken the copy of The Grave Diggers Handbook she found at her brother’s grave site.

For the next four years Liesel discovers the beauty and power of words, beginning in the basement of the Hubermann home where Hans teaches her to read and write. In her brief career as the Book Thief, Liesel will steal from the Mayor’s personal library and rescue a book from a Nazi book burning. She will also receive more than one precious gift of a book.

Liesel’s story is populated by memorable characters and provides a glimpse into life during wartime for working-class folk on the German home front. When Hans is called upon to repay a debt, the Hubermann basement becomes a hiding place for Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man who teaches Liesel how words that have the power to liberate the mind can also be corrupted and marshaled for evil.

There are a couple of standout elements in The Book Thief. The first is the narrator, Death. While the Grim Reaper may be working overtime during this period in history, he has time to observe, comment and tell the story of the Book Thief. What could have been a gimmick works as an effective storytelling technique, incorporating a gripping use of foreshadowing throughout. Secondly, the story is well served by Zusak’s masterful use of figurative writing. Deceptively simple sentences had me reading and rereading lines, paragraphs and sections so I could savor the prose, the words, the phrasing, and their layered meaning.

Although The Book Thief is marketed as young adult fiction, you’d never know it from the intensity of the ideas, the complexity of the story, and the issues at heart. The Book Thief is a wonderful novel, both devastating and hopeful. It’s a must read for anyone who cherishes the power of the written word and the gift of a remarkable book.

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