You can never go wrong with a book about books, and that is, in essence, what The Book Thief is about. Death plays the narrator in this unique young adult novel set during World War II in Germany. Liesel Meminger is nine the first time death finds her. He has come to collect her little brother. The two were traveling on a train with their mother to move to their foster parents house. In the end, Liesel is the only Meminger to move in with the Hubermann’s. The story expands as Liesel’s small world with her new parents becomes embroiled in the wider story of World War II. The Hubermann’s hide a 24-year old Jewish man in their basement when he has no one else to turn to. The man, Max, spends three years in their basement before fleeing, afraid of getting the Hubermann’s into trouble.
Behind this basic plot is another story. One about books, reading, and the power of words. At Liesel’s brother’s graveside, she found book 1: The Gravedigger’s Guidebook. Liesel picked the book out of the snow and thus stole her first book. The Book Thief steals more books throughout the novel as her love for reading grows. Max writes her two books about their friendship, and she finally writes her own autobiography of sorts.
Paralleled with Nazi Germany, Liesel’s love of words is dangerous. Hitler, too, loved words and the power they helped him achieve. “She [Liesel] had seen her brother die with one eye open, one still in a dream. She had said goodbye to her mother and imagined her lonely wait for a train back home to oblivion. A woman of wire had laid herself down, her scream traveling the street…And at the center of all of it, she saw the Fuhrer shouting his words and passing them around.
Those images were the world. and it stewed in her as she sat with the lovely books and their manicured titles. it brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brims of their bellies with paragraph and words.
You bastards, she thought.
You lovely bastards.
Don’t make me happy. Please don’t fill me up and let me think that something good can come of any of this.
She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.” -520-521.
But in the end, some good does come of words. SPOILER ALERT. Words save two people’s lives in The Book Thief. First, they save the life of Max, the Jewish man living in the Hubermann’s basement. Once Max runs away, he is caught and brought to Dachau. One day, on a parade through the streets of town, Liesel sees Max in the middle of the group of Jewish prisoners. Liesel runs to him and recites the words to the story he wrote for her. “Somewhere inside her were the souls of words. They climbed out and stood beside her.
‘Max,’ she said. He turned and briefly closed his eyes as the girl continued. ‘There was once strange, small man,’ she said. Her arms were loose but her hands were fists at her side. ‘But there was a word shaker, too.'” -511-512. In this scene, Max’s story gives him and Liesel the strength to continue surviving.
The second person saved by words is Liesel. She is in the basement when a bomb strikes, leveling her entire block.
It truly speaks to the power of Markus Zusak as an author that he gives away the ending in the beginning of the book, yet I still bawled for a solid ten minutes when I finished.
The Book Thief just rocketed into my top twenty favorite books of all time. I highly recommend it.