The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Read: December 9, 2013-December 13, 2013
Release Date: January 1, 2005
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
Looking at this book many may groan in boredom, shouting sarcastically, “Oh joy, another Holocaust book. They’re all the same.” However, you would be right and wrong to assume such a thing about this book. While it does focus on the Holocaust and all the depressing and painful memories it conjures for many of us, it is also a celebration of human life. Knowing the outcome of this book, as I spent a great deal of time crying in bed as I read it, I can’t say with happiness that I felt joyful at the end. I didn’t. That comes with the territory. I felt pain and heartbreak, but those are all things we should feel in talking about one of the darkest times in our planet’s history. Nonetheless, I also felt those things because I fell in love with the characters of a book that is simple, yet complex, and utterly honest.
Liesel Meminger travels on a train with her mother and younger brother to Molching, Germany in 1939 to escape the beginning of the end. Liesel and her brother are to stay with a foster family, Hans and Rosa Hubermann who will care for them until the time that their mother may return. It is told to us right away, nearly slipped into a paragraph that Liesel’s brother dies on the train ride, signaling the first of many losses over the course of the book.
Many would be interested to know that Death is a literal figure in the book and often interrupts with notes, side stories, and personal viewings of the war from other parts of the world. When Death comes for Liesel’s little brother, it becomes fascinated with her, and views her first moment of book thievery after her brother’s burial. Death visits her often throughout the book, checking on her progress and how she has grown. It would seem that Death cares for this girl, more so than most humans he encounters, because she perplexes and astounds as she moves through life with grace.
After her brother’s death, Liesel moves in with her new foster family on Himmel Street (Himmel=Heaven), waving goodbye to a mother she may never see again and a life that would forever remain out of grasp. Hans Hubermann takes to Liesel quickly, becoming her surrogate father in times of fear and struggle. Rosa is a tough woman to crack and resents Liesel for a fair portion of the book; calling her saumensch, (sau refers to pigs and mensch serves to humiliate a female). Hans shows Liesel how to roll cigarettes, and she enjoys the pastime immensely, quickly gaining Liesel’s trust. After that, she would refer to him as Papa and, after some convincing, Rosa became Mama. Shortly after moving in, Liesel begins to have nightmares of her brother’s face, his dead eyes glazed over as they stare up at her. She would wake screaming and panic before Papa would come in and attempt to soothe her mind and lull her back to sleep. Overtime, Papa would begin to stay in her room with her into the wee hours of the morning, watching over her as she slept and hold her when the nightmares gripped at her mind. He would sing to her and play his accordion in spite of Mama’s threats, all to see her happy.
When Liesel entered school, she was placed with the younger children because she couldn’t read and didn’t know the alphabet. The book she had taken, The Grave Diggers Handbook, screamed at her from under mattress and she longed to read its pages, the last connection she had with her little brother. Papa would help Liesel with her homework, and they began to have reading sessions affectionately called, the midnight class, which commenced at two in the morning with Liesel’s book, Papa guiding her through the pages. Often, she would find herself memorizing each word Papa read aloud.
When she wasn’t at school or Hitler Youth, Liesel ran errands with Mama, dropping off laundry and other goods to the wealthier families for a coin or two. Rudy Steiner, one of the children of the Hubbermans next door neighbors, befriends Liesel during a game of street soccer. They would become inseparable in the coming months, confiding in one another the fears that they shared.
Things change in the Hubberman household when Max Vandenburg arrives. He is exhausted, hungry, and dirty from a long trip that could have easily gotten him killed. Max is Jewish and on the run, riding on the promise of safety in the shallow basement of the Hubberman household. Liesel is skeptical of this stranger in her home, but nevertheless shows him kindness. As she begins to get over her skepticism, Liesel and Max begin a friendship over, what else, books. Soon, the midnight classes were held in the basement where Hans, Max, and Liesel could write on the walls in house paint to practice.
As the war progresses, people became poorer, lending many of them to cancel their services from Mama, including the mayor’s wife who did nothing but grieve over her dead son day in and day out. As an offering of sorrow, the mayor’s wife offered Liesel a book from her lustrous library. Liesel declined, brewing with anger at the woman’s pity. However, Liesel was curious and returned to the house several more times, for what she wasn’t sure, but as soon as she saw the open library window, it dawned on her. She needed to steal a book from this woman as payment for firing her mother. And, so, she did.
The war became worse over time with air raids being a main threat to the people of Molching. Despite this, Liesel continued to steal books from the mayor’s wife and read them to Max in the shallow basement that held so many secrets. It wasn’t until a parade of Jews marched through the center street of Molching that the realization set in. The people that passed before Liesel were half walking/running/jogging/moving were unbearably thin, scared, humiliated, and above all human. Papa made the mistake of helping a Jewish man to his feet after he had fallen. He was beaten for showing compassion. The next night, Max Vandenburg left under the cloud of night to protect the family he had grown so fond of and to protect himself.
Death is ever present as Liesel grows from a child to a young woman. Recounting the many times he has carried soldiers, Jews, women, and children from the blood and agony of human life. Death does not envy mortality, rather the human experience in all of its glory. Life lasts for only so long and we will all die, eventually greeting death as either an enemy or an old friend. For all the lives that were lost during that period of history, death was an enemy. Death claimed people too young, too soon, innocent, or guilty, but death was the clear enemy; the one thing everyone to tried to avoid. Death took special interest in a young girl who captured life through literature and wouldn’t let go until every page was savored. I won’t say this book has a happy ending, but when the book thief met Death, parted after years of encounters, they met as old friends.