The Book ThiefMarkus Zusak
(Knopf · paper · $16.95)
This remarkable novel begins with a small fact: "You are going to die." The narrator should know. He is Death himself.
Death is a busy man, and sometimes Death is really busy. Take Nazi Germany, for example. Millions of people died in a few short years, and Death had to collect them all. Old, young, German, Jew, it didn't matter. Death does not discriminate. "I'm nothing if not fair," he says.
Death focuses on his work, on picking up the souls of the deceased. He tries to ignore those who are left behind. But every once in a while, a "leftover human" catches his attention and he is drawn in to following their saga. One of those noteworthy humans happened to be a young girl living under Hitler's reign.
Death first saw Liesel Meminger when he came to collect the soul of her younger brother. She was about 10 years old, on a train with her mother and brother, Werner, when she saw him cough and die in his seat. The train attendants, at a loss for other options, buried Werner in the snow at the next station. One of the gravediggers accidentally dropped a book in the snow, and despite the fact that she couldn't read, Liesel snatched up the book—her first of several thefts.
At first, Liesel is scared and powerless. Her mother permanently disappears (taken by the Nazis, it is presumed), and she is mocked for being illiterate. At night, she wakes screaming from nightmares. Her foster father, Hans, soothes her by teaching her how to read. As Liesel becomes literate, she gains confidence. Words become her tool, sometimes wielded deftly, sometimes wielded carelessly, but whether used for good or evil, Liesel learns, words have power.
The Book Thief includes plenty of colorful characters, including the gentle Hans and his irascible wife, Rosa, whose vocabulary consists almost entirely of curses. There's Liesel's best friend, an athletic boy named Rudy who admires Jesse Owens, not a popular figure in Nazi Germany. There are fruit thieves, cranky senior citizens, overly enthusiastic Hitler Youth and a sullen-but-thoughtful mayor's wife who learns of Liesel's book thievery. Most importantly, there's Max, a Jew and the son of the man who saved Hans’ life during WWI. Of course, Hitler himself is omnipresent, even if he never makes an actual appearance in this story.
The novel illustrates what life must have been like for ordinary German citizens living through the horrors of Hitler's regime. Many were unemployed, starving and scared, and there was no tolerance for rebellion. Theft—particularly the act of stealing a book from one of Hitler's censorial bonfires—is perhaps a metaphor for taking back some control. And in a time of both material and spiritual poverty, it's simple gestures, handmade birthday presents, found objects, shared food or even not turning someone in to the police, that have the most cache in this world.
The author, Markus Zusak, has said he relished the “beautiful irony” of his narrator Death being haunted by humans. While humans are busy being afraid of Death, Death is desperately trying to avoid looking at us. Humans can be so good and also so evil. The same person, or even the same action, can be both good and bad, and the novel is full of examples of people and actions whose legacies are decidedly mixed.
Zusak has also said he is not trying to convey any message in the novel, although he is pleased that people are finding a variety of themes in the book, including the emphasis on love over hatred, and the notion that words have the power to transform thoughts and societies. Despite all the death that took place in Nazi Germany, as reflected in the novel, the story is oddly uplifting. Even when so many things were taken away from people, The Book Thief steals some of it back.