The Book Thief
Knopf, March 2006
Nominally labeled Young Adult Fiction, The Book Thief is an astonishing piece of writing. In its portrayal of the war years from inside Germany, the novel gives a new perspective to that time in history. The author, Markus Zusak, draws on the real-life experiences of his own family to compellingly describe the other side of the war story. The Book Thief won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (South East Asia & South Pacific) in 2006; was a Michael L. Printz Award Honor book in 2007; and as of September 2009 had been in the New York Times Children’s Bestsellers list for 109 weeks. While its U.S. publisher, Knopf, markets the novel as children’s fiction, it was originally published in Australia for adults.
The Book Thief takes us inside Nazi Germany to the small village of Molching, just outside of Munich, where we meet our protagonist Liesel Meminger. When the novel begins Liesel is a nine-year-old girl on her way to Molching with her brother Werner, to join foster parents. The novel develops through the war years and the years immediately preceding it. What evolves is a fascinating study of what it means to be an everyday German citizen at a time when Germans are seen as anything but ordinary. The slice of Germany that is represented by the inhabitants of the village of Molching suggests that not all Germans were beasts and despots.
We meet the Hubermanns, Rosa and Hans, who are Liesel’s foster parents and become the central grounding figures of her young life. Hans is a housepainter by trade but an accordionist by disposition. He is a man with a strong social conscience who has resisted joining the Nazi party and as a result has seen his business slowly decline. Rosa is barrel shaped and foul-mouthed and loves Liesel, and Hans, fiercely. Together they teach Liesel what it means to belong, and the price of one’s convictions. Liesel’s best friend is Rudy Steiner. He is the image of the blond haired blue eyed Aryan that Hitler and the Nazis promoted. However his interior in no way matches his exterior. Despite the best efforts of the Hitler youth leaders and the Nazi party powers he is never anything other than his own man, Liesel’s friend. The other key character is Max Vandenberg, a German Jewish fist-fighter hidden and protected by Liesel and the Hubermanns. Zusak’s narrator is Death. This is a masterful choice since Death is everywhere, sees everything, and also has his own huge role to play during this time in history.
The Book Thief cleverly inverts the commonly accepted position of history. It leaves us asking who writes the history and how accurate the history books really are. We are trained to believe that all of Germany was complicit in the atrocities of the war, and to some extent it was. Yet, in reality there were many, many, individuals and families who actively worked against the war machine, who lived their lives as best they could in trying circumstances. One of the key motifs of The Book Thief is guilt. Liesel has guilt over the death of her brother; Max has guilt over relying on the Hubermanns; Hans has guilt over the treatment of the Jews in Germany. Ultimately, the most sympathetic characters in the novel are those who, in some way, accept the burden of guilt placed on them by the actions of others. Hans Hubermann is not responsible for the Jews being marched through Molching on their way to Dachau, yet he stills feels sorrow at their treatment. Another central theme is words and language. The novel emphasizes both the destructive qualities of language, as seen in Hitler’s rhetoric, and its redeeming qualities. Liesel develops as a person through her pursuit of language. As well as being the cause of her difficulties, language becomes the key that sets her free.
The Book Thief is a marvelous work that will touch readers of all ages. In his use of imagery and language Markus Zusak has created a highly accessible vehicle for some complex issues. He puts us in the unfamiliar position of empathizing with Germans during the war, but does not excuse any of the appalling behavior. We are left happy, sad, and satisfied with a job well done.