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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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A young girl walks up a street of rubble as the spirit of Death carries away the souls of nearly everyone she knows. In her hands is her story. This is a scene from the last chapter of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Her story, the story of Liesel Meminger, is a story of compassion, hatred, brotherhood, thievery, love, cruelty, kindness, freedom, war, family, and death. The Book Thief is narrated by the spirit of Death.

Set in Germany, The Book Thief provides a very human perspective on World War II from the viewpoint of those living inside Hitler’s Reich. Liesel Meminger is a nine year-old girl when the novel begins, on the way to start a new life. Her parents were communists, and for that reason Liesel and her brother are sent away to a foster family. Her brother dies en route, and, at his funeral, Liesel steals her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, which she picks up after its owner drops it in the snow. She arrives on the impoverished Himmel Street to find the stout, no-nonsense Rosa and the kind, loving Hans Hubermann, her new Mama and Papa. Her neighbor Rudy, a boy with “hair the color of lemons”, becomes infatuated with her and befriends her instantly. After a few months, Liesel settles into her new life, for the first time happy and at home. But a black cloud looms over them, waiting to erupt, and that black cloud is the Führer.

Around them, darkness has come to Germany. On Himmel Street, after the night of Kristallnacht, the Jews gradually leave or are taken away. The novel juxtaposes scenes of war and cruelty, seen through the eyes of Death, with the innocence of children. While bombs fall and Jews are marched to their death, Liesel reads anything she can get her hands on, and often this comes down to thievery. During the vivid scene of a Nazi book burning, when nearly every German shouts “Heil, Hitler” and denounces Jews and Communists, Liesel is only concerned with obtaining one of the burning books. Shortly after this second thievery, one woman’s kindness unlocks an entire world of words for Liesel.

Up to this point, The Book Thief has been a story of a young girl’s passion for reading, the love of her foster family, and the antics of Liesel and Rudy during a time ravaged by war. With one scene, however, it is transformed into a story of a family’s great courage and kindness. One night, a young Jewish man named Max shows up on the Hubermanns’ doorstep, starving and exhausted. The Hubermanns take on great personal risk by sheltering Max in their basement. If he is found, they will be imprisoned, most likely taken to a labor camp. Yet, they are willing to risk their lives and freedom to help this young man. Liesel develops an inexplicable kinship with Max, a friendship stronger than any other. Meanwhile, outside, a parade of emaciated Jews is marched through the streets, and millions more live in horror. Liesel’s world becomes one of air raids, drafts, and sorrow, yet also of love.

I will not give away any more of the precious details of The Book Thief, but needless to say, the ending will leave you shocked and in tears. In the last chapter of the novel, Death watches Liesel, fascinated with the living. The war is nearly over, but for Liesel, there can be no going back. Death ends the novel with the only fact he knows to be true: “I am haunted by humans.”

The Book Thief is one of the saddest, most moving, and most edifying novels I have ever read. Through the eyes of a child, the reader is taken on a journey in a time of horror, sorrow, and cruelty. The writing pulls you into a world that is unimaginable and yet almost exactly like the real Germany during those dark years. While I was writing this, I couldn’t resist going back and reading some of my favorite parts of the novel, and they were just as fresh the second time as they had been the first. You will laugh as well as cry with the characters as you read about the sharp personality of Rosa Hubermann, the antics of Rudy and Liesel, and the soft-spoken courage of Max. You will also feel their fear as they watch the street anxiously for signs of the Gestapo coming to search their house. While The Book Thief is sad, it is also uplifting, because it shows that often the best in people emerges in times of horror. From the Hubermanns’ sheltering of Max to Hans’ standing up for a starving Jew to Rudy’s giving a teddy bear to a dying pilot, many of the characters in The Book Thief commit great acts of courage and kindness amidst the cruelty and horror in their homeland. It is their goodness, rather than the Nazi’s cruelty, that is ultimately the message the reader takes away from the novel.

In October 2013, The Book Thief hit the theaters as a major motion picture. From the vivid imagery of Nazi Germany to the sharp personalities of the characters, the movie captured the spirit of the book perfectly, leaving out only a few minor details in the plot. The Book Thief, however, is no exception to the mantra, “The book is always better than the movie.” If you want to truly learn The Book Thief’s lessons of hope, courage, and perseverance, I recommend that you read the book. By watching a movie, you simply cannot go on journeys with characters, feel their pain and sorrow, and witness the wonders they have to offer the way you can while reading a book.

The Book Thief deals with heavy topics through the eyes of people we can relate to. It is written primarily for an adult and young adult audience, but it is also a good read for preadolescents just beginning to learn about World War II and the Holocaust. Unlike most other novels of its kind, it illustrates how the war affected average German citizens living on the home front. Its themes and lessons are timeless, teaching us about not only our past but also our present and what we can do to shape our future. Ultimately, it is a story not of sorrow and suffering but of kindness, perseverance, love, and compassion. Only when all men and women have learned its inner message of harmony and goodness will we truly be on the path away from the dark days of the Führer and towards an era when no person will have to suffer the way the men and women of World War II and the characters of The Book Thief did.



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