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[690] The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

1thief

” As Liesel would discover, a good thief requires many things.
Stealth. Nerve. Speed.
More important than any of those things, however, was one final requirement. Luck. (Part Two, 117)

The Book Thief is a book about Nazi Germany narrated by Death itself. It’s about death but not Death, although the story is is interwoven with Death’s periodic soliloquies. Death is amiable and affecting, feeling sympathy for the victims. The novel is principally about Liesel Meminger, whose little brother dies just before her mother leaves her with foster parents in a dismal town of Molching. Liesel is the “book thief” who debut her career at the burial ground of her brother, where she snatched a copy of The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Books become her way of coping with losses and eventually save her from the war.

I walked around to see her better, and from the moment I witnessed her face again, I could tell that this was who she loved the most. Her expression stroked the man on his face. It followed one of the lines down his cheek . . . He gave bread to a dead man on Munich Street and told the girl to keep reading in the bomb shelter. (Part 10, 538)

Liesel’s new papa is the implausibly saintly Hans Hubermann, who stays up to read with her and appeases her of nightmares. The mama, Rosa, can be abrasive, raucous, and loud, but cares for Liesel. Death eventually shows that “she was a good woman for a crisis.” Zusak portrays war-stricken Munich and Nazi Germany through the eyes of Liesel, who communes with the living and the dead through her readings. While she joins a gang to pilfer food, her only thieving passion is for books. She visits the mayor’s wife who allows her to browse the library. She spends time with her best friend Rudy Steiner who becomes her partner in crime. She cultivates deep bonding with Max Vandenburg, a 24-year-old Jewish boxer who shows up at the family doorstep. Hans, as it happens, owes the boxer’s dead father a favor, so he houses Max in the basement, where he and Liesel read, write, and draw—until Nazi officers come to inspect the basement for possible conversion to an air-raid shelter.

It’s probably fair to say that in all the years of the Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve the Führer as loyally as me. A human doesn’t have a heart like mine . . . The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. (Part 9, 491)

This is searing but lovely book; it deplores human misery. It’s brilliant look at the wartime lives of ordinary decent people at the mercy of the mordant turns of fate. The book has whimsical elements, but it is a long, winding tale that requires reader to grapple with it. It’s made up of fairy tales, war transgressions and a girl’s quest. Liesel is well-drawn: she’s a fine heroine, a memorably strong and dauntless girl. To me The Book Thief is most provocative and admirable because it tells the story in which books become treasures.

550 pp. Alfred A. Knoph. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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