The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, the person referred by the novel’s title, living her early teenage years at a suburban town in Germany at the onset of World War II. Left to the care of the foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann, Liesel starts anew with new friends and family as she experiences various things, like stealing one book after another, witnessing Jews marching to concentration camps, coming to terms with the many losses in her life, and coming up triumphant at the end of it all. An admirable life-affirming story, it is not only targeted at the younger audience but to the general reading populace as well.
There is one thing I realized after finishing this novel: I rate books according to my mood. My temperament incredibly shifts up and down without warning. Although I still practice what’s left of my good judgment during such mood swings, I sometimes can’t help it if I begrudge a novel an additional star or if I give one more out of sheer whim. The latter is the case with this book.
This does not mean that I was merely high on Prozac, so to speak, when I gave this a stellar rating. It has its good points. Foremost, its subject matter gives an epic sweep to it considering that it is a young adult novel. That alone is an impressive feat. Why introduce topics that most of us would rather erase from the pages of history?
But these we must face. It is bold for a writer to tell a story about the Holocaust and address it to young readers. It is audacious for Zusak to experiment with form and test it on his intended audience. And yet he succeeds, for this is not only a novel for the young adults but for the adult adults as well. In this, he gives away everything at the start of each plot point but still manages to make the reader continue reading until the end. Why shouldn’t we know how things will end for the characters if the narrator is not Liesel Meminger, but the all-knowing and ever-present Death?
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
* * * A REASSURING ANNOUNCEMENT * * *
Please, be calm, despite that previous threat.
I am all bluster–
I am not violent.
I am not malicious.
I am a result.
Death is a quirky narrator. Saramago’s Death at Intervals came to mind during the first reading. There is something gritty about books personifying Death, a literary technique that I approve. What entity can better ponder on the affirmations of life’s impermanence aside from Death? In this, the running commentaries of Death tread on simple facts that aren’t deeply philosophical on the surface but are inherently existential. One such fact is that you are going to die. Nothing more, no if’s and why’s.
* * * HOW IT HAPPENED * * *
There was an intense spurt of coughing.
Almost an inspired spurt.
And soon after–nothing.
But why does Liesel steal books? Is this an attempt to get back at life, or death, for stealing important pieces of her own? At the start, the heroine is shocked and traumatized by witnessing the death of her younger brother, coughing his life away by the snow-filled railroad station. This is Death’s first encounter with the book thief, who was yet to become an official thief at that time. During the burial, one of the gravediggers left his manual on gravedigging, and this manual becomes the object of Liesel’s thievery.
* * * A DEFINITION NOT FOUND IN THE DICTIONARY * * *
Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children.
Ironically, she hasn’t even learned how to read at that time. Reading will come later, and this she will learn from her foster father, Hans, an enigmatic and introspective man who always holds Liesel’s hands during her nightmares. His character reflects majority of this novel’s heart. Running the household with the little money that he earns from painting houses and playing the accordion, he endures life with a quiet fortitude. He does his best to hold on to his principles in a country run by Nazis.
* * * THE ONLY THING WORSE THAN A BOY WHO HATES YOU * * *
A boy who loves you.
Another character that the reader must look out for is Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s best friend who will eternally haunt her for a kiss. If Hans provides the heart, Rudy contributes to the humor, along with the formidable and foul-mouthed Rosa, Liesel’s foster mother. It would be a mistake to only attribute the funny moments to these two since they also pull the heart’s strings with their little acts of kindness.
* * * A NICE THOUGHT * * *
One was a book thief.
The other stole the sky.
More books will be stolen, and there will also be books to be written. Some of the latter will be penned, and drawn, by Liesel’s friend, a Jewish-German named Max Vandenburg, whom Hans sheltered in their basement and who will paint pictures of the sky based on Liesel’s descriptions. How he made it to the Hubermann household has a deep connection with Hans’s past as a war veteran of World War I.
* * * A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR * * *
I am haunted by humans.
So what other books will be written aside from Max’s graphic novels? It’s in the hands of Death. It is a story that will be told to the reader, and although it is not a pitch-perfect story, it is one that is filled life’s tragedies and triumphs.
Dates Read: February 25 to March 20, 2013
No. of Pages: 552
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars