A Journalist's Archive

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          I will not reveal the narrator of this illustrious book, but by page two the following sentences will leave little doubt as to its identity. “It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.”
          Colors appear to be the only stress reliever for this entity, who works overtime whenever human actions lead to chaos. It attempts to enjoy the entire spectrum of colors, but truly favors “dark, dark, chocolate.”
          Creating an exceptional novel takes above average writing skills, which you will certainly find in “The Book Thief.” Placing the book in a grim setting, Germany, 1939, with all its horrors, only compounds that task. Author, Markus Zusak, overcomes these obstacles with mystical prose and a strong protagonist, nine year-old Liesel Meminger. She is a blameless victim of the war, Zusak’s representative for millions of other innocents who fell prey to Hitler’s madness.
          The narrator’s first encounter with Liesel was on a train traveling to Munich. She and her younger brother, Werner, are being sent to a foster home because their mother could not afford to feed or educate them properly. Werner dies before the trip is over, and is buried in an unnamed town. On the ground beside his grave Liesel spots a book which she quickly picks up and hides. “The Grave Digger’s Handbook”  will become the only tangible connection to her past life.
          Separated from her mother, Liesel is driven to the village of Molching. There she meets her foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann. They live on Himmel Street, an ironic name the narrator tells us, since the street bears absolutely no resemblance to heaven.
          Rosa appears to be a cruel and vindictive woman, who enjoys meting out discipline with a wooden spoon. Her language is crude, causing her to lose some laundry customers because they cannot tolerate her caustic disposition.
          Hans, however, is a compassionate man, who loves to play the accordion. He reads to Liesel to help alleviate the nightmares that haunt her. He’s a house painter by trade - the only thing he has in common with the Führer. Having fought in World War I, he has no illusions about the “Master Race.” And it’s a promise he made during that war which brings a stranger to reside in his basement, putting his entire family in jeopardy.
          While the future doesn’t look bright for Liesel, she adapts well to her new situation, playing soccer with the local children and attending school. But her inability to read means she’s subjected to the taunts of her classmates; however one skinny little boy comes to her rescue, Rudy Steiner. He loves to run and idolizes Jesse Owens, the Olympic champion whose accomplishments embarrassed Hitler during the 1936 games.
          Liesel also takes over the job of picking up and delivering laundry for Rosa. When she comes to the mayor’s home, she is greeted by a sad looking woman. Peering inside the home she encounters the most amazing sight she has ever seen, a library stuffed with cases of books. Entering the room, she runs from rack to rack, touching as many of the books as possible.
          As the war progresses, Rudy and Liesel become partners in crime, stealing apples from orchards outside of town. That’s understandable, especially since the main source of food in Liesel’s home consists of pea soup, but she takes the activity a step further. As Rudy stands guard outside, she shimmies through a window into the mayor’s library, stealing one book each time.
          In between these childhood activities, the narrator keeps readers abreast of the progress of the war. “The color of Europe is gray,” it informs us, an apt description for a continent besieged by war. Destruction, food shortages, Jews being marched through the streets of Molching on their way to Dachau, are all part of the story. Yet during all of this, Liesel’s education progresses. Using Hans’ paint, she writes words she is unfamiliar with on the basement walls. When air raids become a common event in the village, she grabs a book before running to the shelter. There, she reads out loud, which helps to soothe her neighbors’ nerves.
          Zuask wrote “The Book Thief” for young adults, and I can’t think of a better book to evoke their interest in history. In addition they will learn: the dangers of idolizing political leaders, how the “Hitler Youth” program ensured the propagation of hate, and why they must be concerned anytime a person or organization decides to start burning books.
          But I think this impressive novel shouldn’t be limited to the young adult audience. World War II began 77 years ago, few eyewitnesses are left to remind us how one fanatic can bring the world to its knees. “The Book Thief” delivers that message - in brilliant colors and poetic grace.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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