Thief of Books: A review, sort of

Cover of The Book Thief - boy playing dominoes
Zusak's "The Book Thief" sparkles with gems

I just finished The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which was a runaway success a few years back that I somehow missed. But then I’ve always been a few steps out of tune with pop culture.

It was recommended to me by my sister, who has outstanding taste in books despite being a Republican. We forget that there are intelligent conservatives, or at least I do. Such individuals are no less misguided for possessing thoughtful qualities. But then there also are plenty of people who vote Democratic who are complete assholes. No general truths are absolute. They’re just generally true.

So back to Mr. Zusak and his wonderful book. The New York Times is credited with saying that, “it’s the kind of book that can be LIFE CHANGING (sic).” I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s pretty friggin’ good.

It’s set in Nazi Germany during the war, and it’s about an orphaned, illiterate little girl taken in by a foster family on the shady side of Munich. The family looks to be a horrorshow: a passive, if good natured husband and a terror of a foster mother with a foul tongue and a penchant for corporal punishment. Little Liesel Meminger seems to be in for a rough ride. I read with extra interest as my own mother was a child of four during the Allied bombing raids over Berlin. Liesel’s only a few years older. And I couldn’t help but think of my mothers stories all during this novel.

In a kind reversal, Liesel’s gruff little foster family is hardly Dickensian. Instead, they turn out to be surprisingly human in a world of Nazis. They hide a Jewish man in their basement, for example, at time when neighbors will readily turn you into the Gestapo. Papa risks a beating to give a crust of bread to a man being marched to a concentration camp. He teaches Liesel to read, which leads to the title character’s book thievery, giving this novel it’s title. And Mama’s capacity for love proves to be as large as her off-color vocabulary and as quick as the back of her hand.

With Allied bombs turning German civilians into hamburger, and columns of half-starved Jews marched through Liesel’s neighborhood on their way to Dachau, The Book Thief is brutal and tough, especially for a young adult novel. But then it’s probably the type of thing young adults should read if they are to tackle such a big subject.

The pages are replete with magic and dazzling characters. Like Liesel’s neighbor and boyish crush, Rudy Steiner, a wiry pre-teen who likes to sneak out of the house at night and paint himself black and run laps at the local track to emulate his hero, Jesse Owens, the man who rose from his own country’s segregation to travel to Berlin and disprove Hitler’s theory of racial superiority. Liesel’s first kiss with young Rudy will conjure a few tears if you have any sort of a heart. I’ll admit to being a little choked up at the end of this novel, and not a little sad that it was over.

Probably most magical element in this book is it’s narrator, who is none other than Death himself, Harvester of Souls. And Death certainly has his hands full during the Holocaust and WWII. In a brilliant stroke, Zusak makes Death the most thoughtful and “human” presence, whose grim work is undertaken (pun!) with such grace and beauty that one can only wish the real Grim Reaper has such compassion. For example, Mr. D says of this key character’s soul, as he carries it off:

This one was sent out by the breath of an accordion, the odd taste of champagne in summer, and the art of promise-keeping. He lay in my arms and rested.

The language is subtle, stylish and beautiful. There are many asides and interjections by Death made in bold type, little sonnets of wit and bittersweetness that give this long book a clever, clipped pace. When the book ended, I didn’t want it to be over. Zusak said, “I like the idea that every page in every book can have a gem on it.” He sure as hell writes as if he believes that. This book sparkles and glitters.

Four stars, three and a half thumbs up. It’s great to know that this whole novel writing thing is alive and well.

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