The Book Thief
The Book Thief has been on my Amazon Wishlist for ages; published several years ago and a New York Times bestseller for now a second go-around, it seemed like good summer reading. Okay, so a novel about Nazi Germany might not be everyone’s idea of a beach book, but what can I say? And from the first page, I was (dare I say?) enchanted by the narrator: Death. A kinder and gentler death, to be sure, but Death all the same. It was a poignant and powerful device.
Liesel Meminger is on her way to a new life with a foster family. The year is 1938; her father, a communist, has disappeared with the advent of Nazi rule, and her mother fears she’ll be next. So Liesel and her little brother are off to Molching, a small village just outside of Munich. Hans and Rosa Huberman were anxiously expecting them and the small stipend that would accompany the children, stretching the family dollar a little further. But little Werner dies along the way, leaving just his big sister to meet her foster family–and refusing, once she arrives, to budge from the placement agency’s car.
We know from the first that Herr Huberman, Papa, is one special man. He coaxes Liesel from the car, shows her how to roll a cigarette for him. He plays the accordion and brings life into their cramped home. He helps Liesel navigate around the treacherous Frau Huberman, whose swearing and yelling and name-calling are legendary. But perhaps most important of all, Papa teaches Liesel how to read–he paints letters and words on the walls in the cellar and pours over the book Liesel found at her brother’s gravesite: The Grave Digger’s Handbook. (Other than that one teensy spoiler, I’ll let you discover who the book thief is and how the books are stolen.)
Liesel navigates school and afternoon soccer matches in the street and wins the heart of Rudy Steiner, friend and confidant extraordinaire. She helps Mama deliver the laundry, attends her Hitler Youth troop–and marches in parades and sings Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles and shouts “Heil, Hitler.” I think this might be the first novel I’ve ever read set in Germany in World War II where the main character is an active participant in Nazi life and it was a bit of a shock. But very little in this world is black and white, and Liesel soon finds out that life in Nazi Germany is many shades of gray.
Zusak scatters the pages of his novel with unexpected lists, labels, and asides. Here’s the list that begins Part One: “himmel street–the art of saumensching–an ironfisted woman–a kiss attempt–jesse owens–sandpaper–the smell of friendship–a heavyweight champion–and the mother of all watschens”. There are also two handwritten and illustrated books, one written by Liesel and one by a Jewish friend of hers. Which probably should have alerted me to the fact that The Book Thief is marketed as a Young Adult novel. But because it’s been several years since the book was first published, I either forgot or totally missed the initial hype (Read: I had no idea what this book was really about) and was fairly surprised at the target audience.
Young adult fiction or no, The Book Thief is poignant and thought-provoking and beautifully crafted.