The Book Thief brings forth the human plight surrounding the war. Specifically, it has World War II in the background around which the story builds up in Nazi Germany. The book provides us with an insight into the mindset of Germans during World War II and goes to show that not all of them were evil Jew slaughtering maniacs. Many of them had their hearts in the right place and went all-in to save some fellow humans at a high personal cost.
Death is the narrator of our story. At the beginning of the Novel, he meets the eponymous protagonist of our story Liesel Meminger on a train where she travels along with her mother and brother Werner to Munich. Death is not only introduced as a narrator but quite literally very early in the Novel, as we witness the death of the six-year-old brother of Liesel and her shock at the suddenness of it. Death becomes a recurring theme in this war-period fiction as the story progresses.
Liesel – The Book Thief gets her first stolen book, The Grave Digger’s handbook, at the funeral of her brother Werner. She then continues her journey to Munich, where she reaches Himmel Street in a fictional suburb of Molching. Her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann live there.
“When Liesel arrived in Molching. she had at least some inkling that she was being saved, but that was not a comfort. If her mother loved her, why leave her there on someone else’s doorstep?… The fact that she knew the answer – if only at the most basic level – Seemed beside the point. Her mother was constantly sick, and there was never any money to fix her. Liesel knew that. But it didn’t mean she had to accept… Nothing changed the fact that she was a lost, skinny child in another foreign place, with more foreign people. Alone.”
Soon we see Liesel adjusting to her new family and place with occasional nightmares of her dead brother. When she woke up afraid in the middle of the night, she found her Papa to soothe and caress her. Soon this bonding develops further, and Hans becomes her first teacher who teaches her how to read and roll cigarettes. And Rosa Hubermann though foulmouth and portrayed a tough exterior, was extremely loving and emotional. As death described her – ‘She was a good woman for a crisis.’ Liesel soon befriends a neigbourhood kid Rudy. Their friendship develops throughout the story as the innocent bond between them is explored in great detail in the story. And it was Rudy who, in late October 1941, officially branded Liesel with the title of ‘book thief’, which she liked very much.
The story develops further with Liesel learning from her father, helping her mother in her daily chores of delivering laundry and strengthening her friendship with Rudy. During this phase, Liesel gets introduced to Ilsa Hermann – the mayor’s wife, who invited Liesel to her Library and
‘It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.’
And soon, the story introduces another critical character Max Vandenburg. Whose father was a dear friend of Hans Hubermann and taught him to play the Accordion, both of them served together during World War – I, and after his death, Hans had promised his widow to provide any help whenever needed. True to his promise, Hubermanns turn into the saviour of the German Jew – Max Vandenburg. Liesel and Max soon develop a beautiful bond which is vividly explained and shown in the book. When comparing the plights of Liesel and Max, our narrator-death sheds some light on the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany by sharing with the readers,
“You could argue that Liesel Meminger had it easy. She did have it easy compared to Max Vandenburg. Certainly, her brother practically died in her arms. Her mother abandoned her. But anything was better than being a Jew.”
The story develops with many highly emotional and vivid descriptions in the backdrop of the war. Scenes depicting the March of Jews from Molching Town to the concentration camps in Dachau are genuinely heart-wrenching. The story explores the personal struggles, pain, losses, and suffering of all the major characters in great detail. The power of words is highlighted throughout the story. Markus Zusak explained the power of words and their role in Nazi propaganda beautifully in Max’s story titled “The Word shaker”. –
“Yes, the Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.”… His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible. He planted them day and night and cultivated them.”
The Book Thief is a celebration of the complexities of human nature. Our Narrator – Death, shares various facets of complex human personalities with the readers. And in his final encounter with the book thief, he –
” wanted to tell many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race- that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the something could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words so damning and brilliant.”
The book thief is a voluminous read at 553 pages, written in ten parts a prologue and an epilogue. It’s not a light or casual read but demands serious attention from the reader to appreciate the underlying themes and nuances of personalities depicted by different characters. Certainly, it’s not aimed at young kids but adult readers who can understand the subtleties of Zusak’s writing. The story is slow and builds up consistently and in great detail. It’s historical fiction with heavy philosophical overtones. Overall The Book Thief is not like a tequila shot intended to be taken in one go but rather like a mature age-old whiskey meant to be enjoyed sip-by-sip. The readers who can afford their time and attention to the Book thief are rewarded at its end.
- Total pages: 553
- Genre: Historical Fiction/Philosophical Fiction
- The Book Thief : Markus Zusak