The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, has been regarded by many critics as a future classic. The novel, originally published in 2005, has become an international bestseller, selling over 16 million copies, translated into 63 different languages, and even being adapted into a feature film in 2013. The Book Thief is a historical fiction novel which begins in 1938, at the start of the Second World War, and follows the story of a young girl, Liesel, who becomes orphaned. On her way to Germany her younger brother dies, an event which haunts her throughout the novel, and she steals her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook. When she arrives at her new home in Nazi Germany, she is fostered by Hans and Rosa Hubermann and suddenly has a new mother and father. Hans learns Liesel cannot read, so he teaches her the wonders of written language to try and help her process her brother’s death. Liesel’s love of books leads her to steal books from dangerous places such as Nazi bonfires and the mayor’s house, as her foster parents are too poor to buy more books. Though her parents are very poor, they secretly shelter a Jewish man whose father saved Han’s life, making their situation even more precarious.
The story is told by Death, who is our guide and narrator. Death becomes a character the reader comes to respect and even feel sorry for by the end of the story. Death is a very human and nuanced character, especially in comparison to many of the antagonist Nazi characters depicted within the book. He is not the Grim Reaper character that is usually seen in stories. For example, Death experiences both joy and sadness in the novel; he even gets depressed at the idea of the amount of unfair Jewish deaths occurring. Death becomes a character we do not blame; instead, he seems like a poor person who has a never-ending, terrible job. Like many humans, Death is trying to justify his work and does this by collecting stories of courageous humans such as Liesel. He retells these stories to ‘prove [to himself] that you, and your human existence, are worth it’ – this seems like a very human need. However, Death is always separate from humans, as he has a kind of omnipotence that he wields, due to the fact that he controls their deaths. Using Death as a narrator sets this story apart as it adds an odd and at times philosophical perspective to the story. Death is in an unlucky position of having human-like emotions but being separate from humanity, which allows him to tell stories in a new, interesting way.
One of the other striking features of the book is the way in which it shows that so many types of people in Germany became victims of the war. It is a well-balanced story which shows the perspectives of German people during the war, from truly committed Nazis, to those against the whole Nazi regime like Hans Huberman. This is done very well, although it should be noted that Zusak is not an apologist, but rather is able to give the reader a glimpse into the human psyche. The book also does a beautiful job at showing problems in Nazi Germany that go beyond the war. For example, Rudy Steiner is a close friend of Liesel who is obsessed with the Black athlete Jesse Owens. His support of this athlete highlights the widespread racism of the time, as he is constantly bashed for his support of Owens, even though Owens inspires him to be the best athlete in the Hitler Youth. Another character whose worries show the minutiae of everyday German life is Isla Hermann, the mayor’s wife, who, while she is financially secure and popular in society, cannot get out of the depression caused by the loss of her son during the First World War. These examples help to make the characters feel more real and relatable, while highlighting other troubling issues that occurred in Nazi Germany. It is the way in which Zusak combines terrible events – such as the Munich Bombing and the offering of bread from a teenage boy to a starving Jew – with believable characters and scenes of everyday life that makes the book so impressive.
The Book Thief is written for a young adult audience, another component which makes the book so refreshing. It deals with very serious themes instead of the cookie-cutter romances and fantasies which flooded the young adult market during the early twenty-first century. Such a unique and insightful book set within an important historical setting makes it a read I would recommend to anyone, although I would consider it most appropriate for those over the age of thirteen considering the heavy themes present throughout.
Written by Sophia Aiello