Beside her younger brother’s grave, a girl named Liesel Meminger steals her first book: The Grave Digger’s Handbook. From that moment on, her life is changed by her own personal circumstances and the circumstances of the world around her. When I heard that The Book Thief had been chosen as this year’s One Book, One Chicago pick, I knew I had to read it. I had already been hearing about it for ages from John Green, popular YA author and video blogger. I don’t know what took me so long, honestly. After all, The Book Thief is a winding tale of Nazi Germany that includes a young girl who steals books, a Jewish fist fighter, a man who plays the accordion, a young boy with hair the color of lemons, and Death as the narrator. What’s not to like?
Though Liesel’s story begins with the death of her younger brother and the theft of her first book, The Book Thief actually opens with Death introducing us to his job. Through Zusak’s remarkably poetic language, Death explains “the colors” and how he handles the souls of the deceased. It’s a rather odd beginning to the story, and it’s somewhat disconcerting at first to have Death narrating the story. But as you continue to read, Death becomes an amiable and likeable fellow. There is the notion that Death is just the one who collects dear, departed souls, he is not the one who separates the souls from their bodies. In this story, Death is not to blame for lost loved ones, he is simply a byproduct of the horrors humans perpetrate on each other.
It is Death who introduces us to Liesel, the main player in this story. Liesel loses her brother on a train ride to their new foster home. The brother is laid to rest, the book is stolen, and Liesel continues on to the house of the Hubermanns, Rosa and Hans. Liesel is loathe to be parted from her mother and clutches the metal gate in front of the Hubermanns’ home, refusing to go inside. When she finally does enter, Liesel refuses to bathe for weeks out of protest. Almost instantly Hans makes a connection with Liesel and he is the one who comes to comfort her when she wakes from a nightmare in the middle of the night.
The nightmares continue – Liesel is forever dreaming of her dead brother – and eventually she mentions The Grave Digger’s Handbook to Hans. They begin to read the book, and that leads to writing down words Liesel does not yet know, and slowly but surely Liesel learns to read. As soon as she knows how, she wants to read everything she can get her hands on – which, unfortunately, is not much. Her second book is stolen at a Nazi book burning and that’s when things really begin to get interesting.
I don’t want to say any more about the actual story for fear of ruining the book for someone. The Book Thief is full of magic and hints left here and there by Death that make you wish you could read even faster than you are. One of the most interesting components of the book is that it takes place in Nazi Germany, but focuses on Germans who don’t follow Hitler. It’s refreshing to see a story about those people who didn’t want to hang the swastika flag outside their home and only applied for party membership to save themselves from almost certain doom. It’s very simply to paint all of Germany as marching in lockstep alongside the Nazi soldiers parading down their streets, but that simply wasn’t the case. The story Zusak tells here is nuanced and heartbreaking, it is the story of the minority in a country where that was the most dangerous place to be.
Aside from this, though, is the captivating tale of Liesel just as a young girl. If you strip away the strife and the tension of the historical period, you simply have the story of a young girl desperate to read as much as she can. She salvages books from the brink of bonfires and pinches them here and there to create some kind of semblance of structure in her life. She’s a bookish, brave, compassionate little girl and she is – I think – one of the best fictional characters ever.
If you’re looking for a book with historical heft, some slightly fantastic moments, and some tearjerker moments, check out The Book Thief.