The Book Thief

by Susana Fletcher

Do we need another telling of lives affected by World War II? Yes. We do. As long as Marcus Zusak is doing the talking. “The Book Thief”, Zusak’s latest novel, isn’t like one you’ve read before. It’s as if C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape met up with Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars” cast, of youth fiction fame. The result is a smart and endearing story of a preteen who, although she steals a few books, is thoughtful and selfless, and the alternating curt and empathetic narration of Death – yes, Death – who despite our preconceptions of the reaper, makes for a good tour guide, reassuringly stating, “I urge you – don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair.”

Liesel Meminger is a foster child in Molching, Germany during the Third Reich. She is cared for by the Hubermans, empty nesters who can barely stand each other. Hans is a house painter and accordion player. Rosa takes in laundry, makes inedible pea soup, and calls Liesel mostly “saumensch”, a German insult relating to the word “pig”.

It’s a rough start for Liesel, with daily nightmares and foster mom Rosa’s cold demeanor, but the young girl finds friendship in the quiet and patient Hans, whom she calls Papa, and the delightfully deranged kid next door, Rudy Steiner, who thinks he’s Jesse Owens. Zusak uses the characters to pause the larger and more dismal picture and focus on small joys. In one such instance, Rudy and Liesel find a coin in the street and take it to do what kids do when they find money. “Mixed candy, please.” Being that the coin was only a pfennig, they end up sharing a single piece of hard candy, taking ten sucks each before passing it back to the other. They walk home, red mouths and all, smiling along the way. “The day had been a great one, and Nazi Germany was a wondrous place.” The diametric theme drives the shaky graph-line of ups and downs. Death even delineates the book’s thematic quakes, “the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.”

Circumstances soon bring “Papa” Hans face to face with a promise he made during the First World War. And so the Hubermans hide a Jew in their basement. “Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew.” The layers of friendship and family are made rich by Max’s arrival, and the range of life and death is deepened.

Zusak’s creative format and precise language provide interest and momentum. The narrator, with quick bites like, “A fire would be lit. A book would be stolen,” seemingly gives everything away, only to carry the reader to the next beautiful moment when nothing was actually spoiled but everything is realized and the rhythm of the book beats on in its steady, throbbing, idiosyncratic way.

Although the full effect of Nazi book burnings, the marches of emaciated Dachau Jews, and Hitler Youth rallies are not hidden from view, “The Book Thief” is not gratuitous; after all, it is a young adult fiction, albeit one that should be read by adults, too. It assumes the reader to fill in the blanks, and is as much a story about life as it is about death. Just as the characters all find their diversion somehow – Death in colors of the sky, Max in weather reports, and Liesel her solace in words – so the reader finds wonderment in the worthy hearts of those pictured in “The Book Thief”, if only to temporarily distract from the backdrop of atrocities that must also be told.

By Markus Zusak Illustrated.
552 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $16.95

The Book Thief

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