Usually, I read books quickly. Rare is the one that makes me slow down and savor the story. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is one of those rarities.
Liesel steals books. The first is at her brother’s funeral when she steals a gravedigger’s handbook. Later she steals from the bonfires used by the Nazis to burn books. She also steals from the personal library of the mayor and his wife. The author provides a delightful twist to this last plot line which I won’t spoil here. Her foster father uses these treasured books to teach her to read.
Liesel grows up physically, psychologically, and emotionally as she experiences courage, friendship, love, survival, death, and grief. And we follow her from her brother’s death and her placement in a foster home through fearing and then loving her foster parents.
Through her eyes we see the brutal horror of Nazism.
And we see tender humanness as well. Her foster parents hide a Jew, and Liesel becomes a willing participant in keeping the secret, even from her best friend, Rudy.
We experience Liesel’s foster father, Hans, a gentle, mild-mannered, almost timid man, exhibit true courage and bravery. Not only does he hide a Jew, Max, but he intervenes to help one of the Jews who are periodically marched through the town at their way to the Dachau death camp. Hans is whipped for his efforts. Liesel later follows his example by giving bread to another group being force-marched through town.
When the danger gets too close, Max leaves. Throughout the remainder of the book, Liesel is searching for him in the groups of Jews paraded through the town. Searching for the man who, from his basement-hiding place, wrote and illustrated stories about her. Stories that will touch the reader as they touched her.
The magnificent story of Liesel is made even stronger by Zusak’s writing. The story is told by Death as a first person narrator. This allows great insight into all the characters, and pulls us into their hearts. Zusak spins words to create descriptions and images that stay with you and reveal the people and the world of Nazi Germany. He gives that world a life that’s missing from the history books.
A rare book indeed—one that will pierce the heart and stay with the reader long after other stories have faded away.