I still remember the feeling I had the first time I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I was probably about 11 or 12. No teacher could have explained the horrors of Nazi Germany to me as well as Anne did. She was speaking to me. Many years later, I visited her attic annex and it was a profound experience.
Reading The Book Thief was also a profound experience for me.
I don’t even know how to begin to talk about The Book Thief. The New York Times said it was “the kind of book that can be life changing.” I mean, you start a book like that with a little trepidation: can it really live up to all the hype? For the first 30 pages or so I thought, “no.” Last night, as I closed the book and wiped the tears away I thought, “every person alive should read this book. I want to teach this book.”
The Book Thief has so many things going for it, I’m not sure where to start singing its praises.
The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger. Liesel is almost ten when she ends up in Molching with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents. It is 1939. In Nazi Germany.
Readers are either going to be totally enchanted or annoyed by the story’s central conceit: the novel is narrated by Death. “Here is a small fact, ” Death tells us. “You are going to die.” For the next 500-plus pages, Death is our constant companion. Sometimes the action unfolds without commentary, other times he weighs in. Although I found the first 30 pages or so a bit of a slog, I soon settled into the book’s rhythms.
Then I fell in love with Liesel. And Hans. And Rudy. And Rosa.
Liesel is extraordinary. She and Hans bond late at night, when Liesel’s nightmares wake her, and Hans teaches her to read. Books and words are central to Liesel’s story. So is her friendship with Rudy, the boy next door. Through their eyes we see Hitler and Nazi Germany; we experience the atrocities and the small kindnesses. Zusak’s story is mostly about everyday things: hunger, pettiness, laughter, hope, cruelty and kindness.
Liesel is sustained by the books she steals and anyone who loves words will appreciate and understand their ability to comfort Liesel. But she is also intelligent enough to understand how words can be used to hurt and coerce.
Where is Death in all this? He carts the souls of the dead off and is, in this story at least, a loving and benign figure.
Death gets the last word. He always does.