The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Name: Mohit Varma
Death, it turns out, is not proud.
The narrator of The Book Thief is many things -- sardonic, wry, darkly humorous, compassionate -- but not especially proud. As author Markus Zusak channels him, Death -- who doesn't carry a scythe but gets a kick out of the idea -- is as afraid of humans as humans are of him.
This is a story told by Death. An interesting point of view perhaps, but as it is set in Germany during World War II, perhaps it is entirely appropriate. It is also a story of a young girl, who in spite of having a life that no one would wish on anyone, still manages to have glimpses of pleasure through many small things, including the few books that she manages to acquire (or shall we say, steal).
Death himself narrates the World War II-era story of Liesel Meminger from the time she is taken, at age nine, to live in Molching, Germany, with a foster family in a working-class neighborhood of tough kids, acid-tongued mothers, and loving fathers who earn their living by the work of their hands. The child arrives having just stolen her first book–although she has not yet learned how to read–and her foster father uses it, The Gravediggers Handbook, to lull her to sleep when she’s roused by regular nightmares about her younger brother’s death. Across the ensuing years of the late 1930s and into the 1940s, Liesel collects more stolen books as well as a peculiar set of friends: the boy Rudy, the Jewish refugee Max, the mayors reclusive wife (who has a whole library from which she allows Liesel to steal), and especially her foster parents. Zusak not only creates a mesmerizing and original story but also writes with poetic syntax, causing readers to deliberate over phrases and lines, even as the action impels them forward. Death is not a sentimental storyteller, but he does attend to an array of satisfying details, giving Liesel’s story all the nuances of chance, folly, and fulfilled expectation that it deserves.
Liesel's father has already been carted off for being a communist and soon her mother disappears, too, leaving her in the care of foster parents: the accordion-playing, silver-eyed Hans Hubermann and his wife, Rosa, who has a face like "creased-up cardboard." Liesel's new family lives on the unfortunately named Himmel (Heaven) Street, in a small town on the outskirts of Munich populated by vivid characters: from the blond-haired boy who relates to Jesse Owens to the mayor's wife who hides from despair in her library. They are, for the most part, foul-spoken but good-hearted folks, some of whom have the strength to stand up to the Nazis in small but telling ways.
Stolen books form the spine of the story. Though Liesel's foster father realizes the subject matter isn't ideal, he uses "The Grave Digger's Handbook" to teach her to read. "If I die anytime soon, you make sure they bury me right," he tells her, and she solemnly agrees. Reading opens new worlds to her; soon she is looking for other material for distraction. She rescues a book from a pile being burned by the Nazis, then begins stealing more books from the mayor's wife. After a Jewish fist-fighter hides behind a copy of Mein Kampf (a book about Hitler’s glory) as he makes his way to the relative safety of the Hubermanns' basement, he then literally whitewashes the pages to create his own book for Liesel, which sustains her through her darkest times. Other books come in handy as diversions during bombing raids or hedges against grief. And it is the book she is writing herself that, ultimately, will save Liesel's life.
The book is very interesting and to fun to read. There are two things that I think made this enjoyable for me: first, I really liked the main character and wanted to know what would happen to her. Second, sometimes Death would actually tell you what was going to happen, long before it actually happened. When you know the ending in advance, you aren't so concerned with what ultimately happens, but instead with everything in between, so it keeps you reading. At least, it did for me.
Hot tip- You will have a copy of guide to the world of death at the end of the book. (The book thief guide manual)