4 February 2014

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finished The Book Thief late this morning and straight off the bat let me warn you not to read the last twenty pages on public transit, at the office during lunch, or with anyone else present...at all.  Despite having seen the movie and knowing how it ends I sniffed and sobbed my way to the last page.  Not about to put the book down to go in search of tissue I began grabbing handfuls of my t-shirt to wipe my tears and dab at my wet nose.  Frankly, I resembled an extremely proficient wet nurse in need of a charge once it was all said and done.  Now I finally understand why this beautifully told story has been in constant demand since it was published several years ago.

Leisel Meminger is a young girl being delivered to a foster family on Himmel Street at the beginning of World War II in Germany.  The English translation of 'Himmel' just so happens to be 'Heaven'.  Liesel has recently witnessed her brother's death on the train during their travels and his swift burial in a cemetery not far from a train station.  A dropped or discarded copy of The Gravedigger's Handbook  lies in the snow near Werner's grave. Despite being illiterate Liesel takes possession of it.  The book will serve as the impetus of a loving bond between the young girl and her foster father as Hans Hubermann teaches her to read using an unusual resource.  Her new 'mama' takes a bit longer to warm up to with her prickly personality, rubbish cooking skills and stern visage.
'One or two gasped at the sight - a small wardrobe of a woman with a lipstick sneer and chlorine eyes.  This.  Was the legend.  She was wearing her best clothes, but her hair was a mess, and it was a towel of elastic gray strands.' 
Tempering the horror of the Holocaust is the relationship between Liesel and her partner in crime, Rudy Steiner.  Both despise the Nazi movement and hunger so they constantly conspire ways to stay on top of the food chain.  Spirit and courage is something these two have in spades but Leisel trumps when she regularly climbs through a window at the Mayor's house to steal books from his library.  Any bibliophile reading this story will completely understand the weighing of danger versus reading material and cheer for each successful acquisition.  The book thief has another accomplice in Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's wife, when it dawns on Liesel that the library window is being left open and, in one case, a dictionary is left on the ledge.

Ramping up the tension in the story is the appearance of Max Vandenburg, a Jew, on the Hubermann's doorstep.  There is a back story which I won't get in to but as is the case when anyone is hiding with the possibility of exposure there is no doubt your heart will be in your throat a time or two.  On a personal note, this plot line reminded me of my Ukrainian father-in-law telling me that he and some housemates hid a Jewish man during World War II.  Children would run streets ahead of German soldiers on patrol to give warning and off this man would go into his hiding spot.  My in-laws met in a German labour camp so he wasn't able to get away with his plans of deception in the long run, it seems.

The most fascinating aspect of The Book Thief is that Death is the narrator.  He is surprisingly witty and caring, it's not a job he relishes and he even finds the image of himself as a grim reaper with a scythe highly amusing.  But oh, his floating above concentration camps and bomb sites waiting to collect souls is incredibly chilling and unsettling.
'The Germans in basements were pitiable, surely, but at least they had a chance,  That basement was not a washroom.  They were not sent there for a shower.  For those people, life was still achievable.'
 I loved absolutely everything about this book.  A mild obsession with oral histories relating to concentration camp experiences around twenty years ago began to darken my thoughts to the point where I had to eventually steer clear.  This book delivers so many endearing tales regarding love and compassion they override the evil of patroling Nazis and frightening politics.  You will laugh, you will cry and I guarantee you will never forget the relationships Liesel Meminger forged with her second family.


  1. This is definitely one to read again, slowly savoring the lyrical prose now that the final outcome has been revealed. Unless something else knocks my socks off (The Thirteenth Tale, perhaps?), I've found my #1 read for 2006. Absolutely phenomenal and achingly beautiful.
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  2. Stop reading whatever you're reading and pick this up instead. Then pass it on to everyone you know. It's not just the incredible story (read Amazon synopses), it is the point of view Zusak uses and his writing style and the incredible way he puts words together. Rarely have I read a book that blew me away like this one. I just bought 5 copies to mail to friends.