Book Review: The Book Thief

I finished “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak a couple of days ago and I am willing to say, right now, that it is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. It is a brilliant book, destined to be an all-time classic, and it is undoubtedly going to go down as one of the best fictional books about World War II era Germany ever written. Is that a narrow category? I’m not sure. What I DO know is that it’s brilliant.

The Book Thief is narrated by Death – the actual personification of Death. A very brave and ambitious thing to attempt, but Zusak pulls it off with flying colors. The book is about the life of Liesel Memminger between the ages of 11 and 14. Her story starts when she steals her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, stolen when her little brother was buried after dying young. Her Mother is unable to take care of her and she is sent of to live with her adopted parents, the Hubermann’s, Hans and Rosa.

While there she strikes up a friendship with a boy named Rudy Steiner. Now, I’m just going to be honest. I love Rudy. He’s one of my favorite characters ever, in any book I’ve ever read. We first learn about him when we’re told of the “Jesse Owens Incident”. Rudy idolized the Olympic runner Jesse Owens, who won the gold in the Munich Olympics while Hitler was dictator, an event perceived as especially embarrassing because Jesse Owens was black (interesting side note – in real life, and contrary to the oft-told story, Hitler was actually quite gracious after Owens won, surprisingly). So Rudy painted himself black, snuck out at night, and ran laps at his local track before being caught by his parents. From then on, I was hooked.

Just wanted to give a special shout-out to Rudy since he’s so awesome.

More than anything else, the book is really the story of the relationships Liesel develops, specifically with Hans and Rosa, Rudy, Max (the Jew they hide in their home), and even her neighbor, Frau Holtzapfel. It is also the story of the power of words. Hitler used words to spread hatred and gain power; Liesel symbolically steals the words back and uses them to bring hope to people. When Munich is being bombed and the entirety of Himmel street is huddled together in a basement, Liesel reads from her stolen books to comfort people and distract them from their perilous situation. These moments are some of the most critical in the book; they encapsulate more than anything else how Liesel’s stolen words do the reverse of Hitler’s; instead of spreading hatred anddiscord, Liesel’s words bring hope and comfort.

Her relationship with Max is also defining. “The Book Thief” is a reminder that Germany was not a caricature; good people existed, people like the Hubbermans and the Steiners. When Max comes to stay at the Hubberman’s household Liesel once again uses the power of words, this time to strike a friendship as she practices her spelling and reading in the basement where Max lives; the friendship is truly struck when the young Liesel gives Max a hug as a birthday gift. His only true gift is from a 12 year old girl. In response, Max gives Liesel the only thing he can give: Words. He writes her a small book, “The Standover Man”, telling the story of the people who have protected him and watched over him in his life, ending with Liesel. When Max nearly dies of an unknown illness it is Liesel who doesn’t give up on him, standing by his bedside night after night.

Later in the book, Hans Hubermann is caught giving bread to Jews marching in the street by the Nazis; the family is forced to send Max away, and Hans is conscripted by the German army. Liesel spends the next year searching for Max in the long line of Jews marching through the street; when she finds him she once again gives him the gift of words, the only thing she can give, telling Max all about what’s happened on Himmel Street since he left. For this horrible crime she is beaten repeatedly by the German guards.

After the incident with Max, Liesel becomes disillusioned as to the power of words, and stops stealing. After encouragement from the Mayor’s wife she realizes it’s time for her to make her own words, giving back instead of stealing. She writes down her story, the story of her life, titled “The Book Thief”. In the meantime we get a small example how, sometimes, actions really do speak louder than words; when an American pilot crashes onto the streets of Munich, it is Rudy who places a teddy bear beside him as he dies, telling him everything he can without speaking a single world. Rudy, despite his anger at the world (his father was also conscripted as punishment for the family refusing to give up Rudy to service), still knows the value of love and compassion himself.

The ending of the book is inevitable. Himmel Street is bombed, and Liesel is one of the only survivors. Hans, Rosa, and Rudy are all killed in the bombing. Perhaps the most tragic scene in the entire book, and possibly the most tragic scene I’ve ever read, is when Liesel comes across Rudy’s body. Finally, she confesses her love, but too late; Rudy is dead. It is then that she finally gives Rudy the kiss he had always wanted. Rudy had loved her, loved her desperately, and it was only later – too late – that the book thief realized she loved him back. It is the most powerful scene in the entire book. I always imagined the music after the final battle in Les Miserables playing as Liesel finds the dead bodies of her loved ones after the bombing (before Dog eats Dog, of course).

The book ends with Liesel living with Mr. Steiner after he comes back from the war, working in his tailor shop. Max returns, alive after all, and reunites with Liesel. Our Narrator tells us that Liesel lived to an old age and had many grandchildren. When he finally comes to take Liesel away he shows her something: “The Book Thief”, which Death had saved for all these years. Why is never stated; perhaps as a way to prove to himself that humans are worth it. When Liesel asks him why he saved her book for so many years, he can only offer this as a reply:

I am haunted by humans.

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