rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am haunted by you humans.
So ends one of the most captivating books I’ve read in years, and I am similarly haunted by the trance of this book. In fact, I’ve been unable (or unwilling, perhaps) to pick up another book since.
The Book Thief is set in Nazi wartime Germany. In an interesting twist, Death (of Grim Reaper fame) is the narrator of the story. Captivated by a young girl, Death follows the events in her bittersweet life story, from the time she is given up from her birth until her death. It’s a story built of love and humanity in the most unlikely of places.
The Story Unfolds
Intertwined throughout the book is a passion for both books and human life. Liesel is an enduring, unlikely heroine - a school aged illiterate girl who loses her brother at the time of her separation from her mother and steals a book from his graveside. She quickly befriends a neighbor boy (Rudy) and together they commit small acts of defiance (from book and apple thievery to giving stale bread to starving Jews walking to Dafur) in an attempt to settle the score between the unfairness of the time.
As Liesel’s love grows for her foster father and her best friend, so does everyone around her fall in love with her. Her reading improves to the point where she reads books in the shelter to keep everyone calm during air raids. She sits in the enchanting library of the mayor’s home. She brings gifts to the ailing Jew hiding in their basement. She is a worth opponent in soccer tournaments in the streets with the boys.
Zusak touches on difficult times in history with a novel approach. From Death’s eyes, we see both virtue and malevolence in humanity. "So much good, so much evil. Just add water." Death occasionally interjects personal opinions into the book, which breaks the flow of the story. I found these anecdotal interruptions added to the depth of Death as a character, but some readers found this style distracting.
The end (spoilers)
After an air raid flattens the neighborhood unexpectedly at night, no one survives but Liesel. Death alludes to the possibility many times, which made me believe that when my favorite characters finally were ripped from the story, it wouldn’t be so painful. I was wrong. After you have fallen in love with Rudy, Hans and even warmed up to Rosa Hubermann, you miss them terribly. The tears on Liesel’s cheeks become your own.
Zusak literally put the mayor’s home on a hill – the rich were quite literally put on a pedestal. Liesel chastises the mayor’s wife for living in such affluence while others were living in poverty. One of her acts of defiance is to steal books from the mayor’s library. As the story evolves, it’s clear that the mayor’s wife has intentionally let Liesel steal the books, and shares her love of literature. In an interesting twist of fate after the air raid, the mayor’s wife comes to find Liesel and brings her to her home. While visiting Rudy’s father’s store, Max walks in and the two find a happy and tearful reunion.
There are happy and sad times in life, as there are opportunities for great heroism in times of tragic adversity. Zusak has captured them beautifully, and captured my heart as well.
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