The Book Thief

The_Book_Thief_by_Markus_Zusak_book_cover

The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

Age: 11 +

Interests: history, WWII, war, Germany, Jewish history, Holocaust, orphans, strong girls
Alfred A. Knopf: 2005

550 pages

Also by this author: Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Getting the Girl, I Am the Messenger

Other books about WWII and the holocaust: Number the Stars (ages 9+), Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Milkweed

This is the story of an illiterate orphan obsessed with books, and her life with her new foster parents in a small German town just as World War II begins. Traumatized by the death of her little brother on the way to the foster home, and the disappearance of her mother (presumably into a concentration camp), Liesel is plagued by nightmares. Her foster mother Rosa is cold and stern, but her new father Hans is everything she needs – he sits with her every night when she wakes screaming, and patiently helps her learn to read. The Hubermanns are very poor, barely scraping by, but Liesel becomes very happy in her new home, particularly in the company of her new best friend Rudy.  The ominous presence of the Nazi Party in everyday village life, culminating in a book burning, provides the counterpoint to their carefree existence. Her parents are obedient to authority, mostly because they are terrified of the consequences of disobedience. It soon becomes apparent that they do not fully embrace the ideology of the party, for when the Jewish son of a friend comes to them for help they agree to hide him in their basement. Hardship and danger brings out the best in Mama, who reveals herself to be caring and resilient. For her part Liesel, though at first frightened and suspicious, slowly becomes friends with the fugitive Max. The war continues and times get tougher and tougher. Food is scarce and Liesel and Rudy become adept at stealing what they need to survive. Liesel soon turns her attention to stealing books from the mayor’s wife’s personal library and her pursuit of words and knowledge is encouraged by Max, who gives her a book to write her own story in. The war continues, slowly destroying everything around them, culminating in a devastating Allied bombing run that flattens their street.

It’s an incredibly moving and meditative novel. Death himself narrates this beautifully written vision of wartime life in Germany. He remains for the most part aloof from events, withdrawing to a distance whenever it gets too much. He also prepares the reader, always hinting at the sadness to come as the tale proceeds. It’s a very long book, with a lot going on – many side characters and incidents provide a fully faceted look at the German experience under Hitler. While The Book Thief doesn’t go directly into the horror of the concentration camps, they clearly exist in the periphery, and there are incidences of Jews being marched through town, as first Papa and then Rudy and Liesel show great bravery and do what they can to help the prisoners. The hardship and ever-present fear is very real throughout this book, and there are some very sad death scenes, particularly at the end. This is an unflinching look at life in wartime, and the petty small-town grievances that were fanned into flame by the Nazi Party. It’s also a story about resilience and doing the right thing despite great danger.

This book should start a conversation about anti-Semitism and other instances of blaming marginalized peoples for society’s problems. It’s also an interesting look at a totalitarian society, as ordinary people are swept by fear and hatred into following the twisted dictates of the party. I was particularly impressed though by how measured the book was. The mayor’s wife – in her swastika robe and slippers – is just as damaged as everyone else, traumatized by the death of her soldier son, and she shows great kindness to Liesel, sharing her love of books. And the air raid that in the end kills nearly all of the main characters is an Allied one. The overall message is that war is bad for everyone, even Death, who has got his hands full collecting all those departing souls.

Its length makes this an ambitious read for advanced readers of 10 or 11, though the dark subject matter may be too much for some at that age. Your reader will know fairly quickly whether or not they want to continue, as the death of Liesel’s brother happens right at the start of the book and sets the tone for everything to come.
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The Book Thief,  the Movie: The movie version is beautifully shot with some wonderful performances, particularly Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Hans and Rosa. It prunes many peripheral characters and events. I don’t mind the cuts that must happen whenever a lengthy novel is turned into a movie, but I found other changes rather irritating, trading story logic for emotional impact. All in all, however, it’s still quite a good movie. And I’ve always found the conversations that follow about what was changed and whether it was a good or a bad thing, to be fascinating! It’s a way to really get your child thinking about story mechanics and the difficulties of turning words on a page into images on a screen.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.