The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

book thiefDeath is the narrator in The Book Thief .  He’s is not your typical grim reaper, but a figure of compassion who expresses concern for the souls in his charge.  Often, his presence is welcomed in a time of suffering. 

The setting of this novel is World War II Germany, where food shortages and deprivation are the norm, and the National Socialist “dream” is a hard swallow for the inhabitants of Himmel Street in Molching, a town on the outskirts of Munich.  The main character, Liesel Meminger, is a young girl with misfortune thrust upon her early, when her brother dies on a train journey to Molching.  Afterwards, her mother gives her up to Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a couple who are happy to get the meager supplement for adoption from the government, although they at first seem questionable as foster parents.

Liesel makes friends with Rudy, her next door neighbor, gets into scraps at school and on the soccer field, and gets used to her new parents – Rosa, who possesses a steady fury with the world and whose every other word is derogatory, and Hans, an occasional house painter who reveals himself to be a gentle soul.  He is the first to have a rapport with Liesel; he teaches her how to hand-roll cigarettes from rationed tobacco and more importantly, to read, using a book that she stole from the grave-digger when her brother was buried.

The Hubermann’s situation, precarious as it is, becomes harder when the family hides a Jewish man in their basement.  He proves to be a humanizing factor for the Hubermann family and a strong friend for Liesel, as she navigates early adolescence in their war-torn world.  As for Liesel, her new desire to read leads her to steal even more books from an unlikely source, and she enlists Rudy for help with her booklifting ventures. 

As with any wartime novel, The Book Thief has lots of sorrow within its pages.  It’s one of the first books in a long time that moved me to tears.  Needless to say, Death as narrator has little idle time.  Amidst the heartbreak, though, you’ll cheer on Liesel and her family as they survive in some wretchedly difficult times.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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