I sobbed my way through the last fifty-odd pages of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak last night. You’d think with Death as the narrator of the book and the fact that it is set in Germany during World War II that I would be prepared for a sad ending. This is one of those books where you love all the characters and even though you know how the war ends, even though you know what happens, you hope that maybe here, maybe in this book, history can be changed, people can be saved and that everything might turn out alright.
The first couple of chapters I wasn’t so sure I was going to like the book. It was hard to get into, the voice was odd, Death’s narrative intrusions were annoying. But then after about 30 pages something clicked and I found myself enjoying the story. So if you decide to read this book, keep that in mind. Give the book a little time and you will find yourself caught up in it.
The story takes place on Himmel street in Munich. Himmel street is the poorest street in town. Liesel, our book thief, arrives on Himmel as a foster child at the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Both of the Hubermann’s children are grown and they treat Liesel like she was their own. The next door neighbors are the Steiners with a passel of kids. One of them, Rudy, is Liesel’s age. They become best friends and Rudy wants nothing more than for Liesel to give him a kiss. She always refuses but more from principle than for any other reason because Liesel wants Rudy to kiss her but she’s not about to tell him that. The Hubermann’s also end up hiding Max, a Jewish man, in their basement.
One of the things I liked best about the book is the compassion and beauty that shine through the ugliness. And there is lots of ugliness. But there is lots of love too. We’ve all heard stories of great heroics during the war. The characters in this book are heroes too, heroes of common decency who leave pieces of bread on the road to Dachau for the Jews who are being marched there. They are people who have nothing but yet still manage to get by and help others in the process. And yes, this is fiction, but I like to think that there were people like this in real life whose kindness and goodness we don’t know about.
Even though the story is set during the war, the book is really about words. At one point Liesel destroys a book that doesn’t even belong to her. She does it from rage and frustration and desperation:
She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.
Then a chapter.
Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better.
What good were the words?
But it is clear what good the words are because while they hurt and destroy, they also heal and comfort and are even gifts.
Since words are so important in the story it is a delight that Zusak is so good with them. He surprises from time to time with some unique descriptions. Things like, “He was teenage tall and had a long neck. Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face.” And “There were no people on the street anymore. They were rumors carrying bags.” And one of my favorites, “Her wrinkles were like slander. Her voice was akin to a beating with a stick.”
The book’s audience is young adult/teen, but it’s an enjoyable read for grown ups too, especially the kind of grown ups who care about words.