“First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
*** HERE IS A SMALL FACT***
You are going to die.”
And so Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief, begins. Told from Death’s point of view, The Book Thief, is the story of Liesel Meminger and her encounters with Death in war-torn Germany. As Death explains in the prologue, “It’s just a small story really, about, among other things: A girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.”
But it’s not really a small story at all. Well over 500 pages, The Book Thief, is a book those who love to read will love to read. Since these are Death’s words and it’s WWII, it’s not a stretch for the reader to know and understand that dying will litter the pages. What the reader may not expect is the tightness of the threat and the burning of the eyes as the story unfolds. And, should the reader expect tears, s/he may not expect laughing through them. Well deserving of the numerous awards lavished upon it, this novel grabs you and holds until the last page and long after – leaving you reeling. And, if you’re like me, when you read the last page, you read those last words one more time before closing the book, pulling it to you, and closing your eyes. And you see colors. And words. And know you’ve read something great. And that for a brief moment, you were apart of it.
The novel opens with Liesel on a train with her mother and brother. She is nine and her brother is dead. The dead brother is how she first encounters Death. The dead brother also results in her first theft of a book. She steals The Gravedigger’s Handbook. She is taken from her mother and left with Rosa and Hans Hubermann, her foster parents. This is due to her mother’s involvement in communism. Rosa is gruff and often violent with the child. Hans is soft and gentle. Liesel opens herself up to him quickly. In the dead of night, when the world is sleeping, he teaches her to read the book she’d stolen.
Hans is trying to gain acceptance into “the party.” This is hard because he is known as a “Jew lover” because he’d painted over the vile words some placed on a Jewish shopkeeper’s door. The party will not accept him. Hans finally gets accepted. But it is as a means of punishment. When the Jews are marched through the town, he hands one bread. He is beaten for this. And then sent off to fight for Hitler. (A man he loathes. A hatred he must swallow for his family’s safety.) He is a painter. And an accordion player. The accordion is ultimately what brings the Jewish fist fighter to their home for refuge. A refuge they willingly give.
Rosa, for all her harshness, is to be admired. She does not question her husband when Max shows up for safety. She feels for Liesel when Liesel keeps writing her mother, who will never answer her. And when Hans is sent to fight a war that isn’t his, she clutches his accordion to her chest – bruising her heart with her love. It may be tough love, but it’s strong love.
Liesel’s best friend is Rudy – a beautiful blond haired boy who wants to be Jesse Jackson. Once, he paints himself black and runs through the town. Hitler wants him. His father refuses. For this, his father is sent off to join the war. Liesel loves him as children love. Rudy grows to hate Hitler. The two encounter a downed plane with a dead American inside. (This is the second time Death encounters Liesel.) The young boy places a stuffed bear next to the soldier – a man society screams is an enemy. Death with take Rudy as well. Death will take everyone. Liesel finally gives Rudy the kiss he’d been begging for since meeting her when he is cold and dead. Your heart will break.
Liesel steals books. The Grave-digger’s Handbook is but her first. Her other comes from a Jewish bookburning. It is wet and hot when she hides it against her chest. It burns her. But she reads it. She then steals from the mayor’s wife’s library. But it isn’t stealing. The white-haired woman opens the library for the girl. She leaves her notes. Liesel gives her life. (And when her entire home is destroyed, Liesel finds solace and refuge in her home.)
When Max shows up, Liesel is uncertain of him. He is a “Jew.” But she begins to love him. He is the one secret she keeps from Rudy. He is the one secret that tightly links the small family. He writes her books. When the family hides in bomb shelters, he comes out to see the stars. When it snows, she brings the snow to the basement so they can build a snowman. They live as best they can. He writes her a book. He paints the pages of Mein Kampf. The book of hate was used to hide a key. Once safe, Max paints the pages white and writes over it with his own story. After Max leaves (he must – it is no longer safe), he leaves the book with Rosa to give to Liesel.
When the Jews are marched through town, Liesel watches for one Jew. She does not hide from him or from her connection with him. She runs to him, calling his name. She pays for this.
Liesel begins to write her own story. When the town is bombed and her entire street (and family) destroy, Death returns. Liesel is spared, but she leaves her book in the rubble. Death steals it. It is only fitting. Death does not see Liesel again until years later when he comes to get her. She sits up to meet him.
The novel ends:
“A last note from your narrator: I am haunted by humans.”
This novel is fantastic. And one any lover of words, life and love must read.