The Book Thief

By: Markus Zusak

Death has witnessed every great human tragedy. Every war. Every despicable act that cost millions of lives, and in 1939 Germany, he has never been busier. But one child captivates him in a way no one else ever has, a young German girl named Liesel Meminger.

Liesel is completely illiterate when she is brought to the home of her foster parents but carries with her a stolen book called The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Desperate to learn what the words say, her foster father, Hans Hubermann, teaches her in the wee hours of the night. Thus begins her love affair with books and a continued desire to steal more for her small collection. Yet, these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s new family hides a Jewish man in their basement, Liesel’s world is forever altered. 

Death recounts those years of the war from the mix of Liesel’s diary and his own perspective painting a colorful image not easily forgotten under an ashen German sky. 

Death is a fascinating narrator being simultaneously removed from most of the story and ever present because as we all know, Death is everywhere. The prose and descriptions are unlike other stories I’ve read because of the attention to detail and unique similes. Death sees the world and color differently than humans do so you get lines like:

“For me, the sky was the color of Jews. When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the doors, their souls rose up. When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, their spirits came towered me…into eternity’s certain breadth.” (Page 349).

I think Zusak wanted to portray Death as a neutral party from the perspective of war. Death struggles with questions like whether Germans who never personally harmed a Jew were still bad people because of the side they happened to fall on. He knows the atrocities of the concentration camps but then looks at people like Hans Hubermann and wonders how humanity can have both the capacity for such evil and yet such compassion. Death states several times that he is haunted by humans. This moral dilemma makes Death a complex character because the only thing he can seem to make a personal statement about is how he hates the men that bring about such devastation. People like Hitler and Stalin. Men that play with the lives of others. Everyone else? Well he just doesn’t know. 

Through Leisel’s diary we get an honest and heartbreaking look at the lives of everyday Germans during WWII. I wouldn’t describe this book as moralistic or necessarily sympathetic to the Nazis but rather Zusak demonstrates that there were good people during the war that did not support the Nazi party. Those like Hans Hubermann who just wanted to help others and never supported Hitler’s rise to power. 

Leisel herself is a very neutral character because she never cares about the war or picks a side. She doesn’t appear to have any hostilities towards the people who Germany is fighting. She cares about the Jewish man in her basement, her friend Rudy, her foster family, and her love of books. Leisel isn’t even a particularly morally righteous character because, as the title of the story explains, she is a thief. She steals when it’s forbidden but never truly causes harm to anyone through her theft. Leisel has a system for when it is okay to steal and never takes more than she things is fair. I would describe her as more of a tragic character than one who was trying to make a point. 

This story was really incredible and I would recommend everyone to pick it up at least once. Hands down will be one of my top books this year.

Overall rating: 5

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