“When Death tells a story, you pay attention. Liesel Meminger is a young girl growing up outside of Munich in Nazi Germany, and Death tells her story as “an attempt—a flying jump of an attempt—to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.” When her foster father helps her learn to read and she discovers the power of words, Liesel begins stealing books from Nazi book burnings and the mayor’s wife’s library. As she becomes a better reader, she becomes a writer, writing a book about her life in such a miserable time. Liesel’s experiences move Death to say, “I am haunted by humans.” How could the human race be “so ugly and so glorious” at the same time? This big, expansive novel is a leisurely working out of fate, of seemingly chance encounters and events that ultimately touch, like dominoes as they collide. The writing is elegant, philosophical and moving. Even at its length, it’s a work to read slowly and savor. Beautiful and important” (Kirkus, 2006).
In what is perhaps John Green’s most widely read work, The Fault in Our Stars, there is a quote that has stuck with me since I first read the book. It happens after the main character, Hazel, has just finished reading what quickly becomes her favorite book: “Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book” (Green, 2012, p. 33). While I certainly felt that way when I finished reading The Fault in Our Stars, I have never felt it stronger than I did after reading Mark Zusak’s The Book Thief.
The novel, narrated by the personified character of Death, follows the story of young Liesel Meminger, a little girl in Nazi Germany whose family has fallen on hard times. Unable to care for her and her younger brother, Liesel’s mother attempts to leave them in the care of foster parents. Unfortunately, however, Liesel’s younger brother does not survive the trip, leaving Liesel to enter a world of uncertainty alone with her new foster parents, the Hubermanns. What follows is a tale of love, family, and the joy and sorrow that words can bring.
What can I possibly say about this book that hasn’t likely been said already? It was absolutely, beautifully heart-wrenching, and it certainly gave me a new perspective on World War II and Nazi Germany. In this novel, we are presented not with a story of a Jewish person (though many novels have done this in a wonderful way), but with the story of a young, poor German girl. That is something I hadn’t experienced before reading The Book Thief, and it was a refreshingly unique perspective. The horrors of the Holocaust are still presented in this book, but they are presented through the eyes of an innocent young girl, one whose family just so happens to be harboring a Jewish man in the basement. We follow Liesel through life as she makes friends, gets to know and love her new family, and learns to both love and hate the written word. Every single chapter of this novel feels as if it was pain-stakingly written to give the biggest emotional punch at every turn, and I really appreciated the sheer creativity of Zusak’s writing style.
Perhaps the most powerful part of the novel (for me, at least), comes near the end, as Liesel is reading the book that Max (the Jewish man her family had been harboring in the basement) has left for her. Calling this fable “The Word Shaker,” Max goes on to describe Liesel as a young girl who has discovered the power of words. Instead of using them for evil as Adolf Hitler has, however, this girl has used them to extend a hand of friendship towards a man she is supposed to hate (Zusak, 2006, pp. 445-450). This is a truly powerful metaphor, as it carries a theme that is prevalent throughout the novel: that words can be both beautiful and terrible, causing as much harm as they do joy. In the end, Liesel can’t decide whether she loves the words she’s been taught to read, or whether she hates them for presenting the world as something it is not. As we watch her grow and mature, Liesel becomes more and more relatable, going from wide-eyed innocence to being hardened by the terrible things going on around her. Her love of literature, too, spoke to me, as I have often sought the refuge of the written word when trying to escape my own problems.
I would absolutely use this book in a history classroom, as I firmly believe that reading a novel like The Book Thief can make history that much more real and accessible to students who are learning about specific moments in history. For me, personally, books like Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and Elie Wiesel’s Night shaped my understanding of the Holocaust, and truly made me see what a horrific event it really was. The Book Thief not only brings some of these horrors to light, but does so in a new and interesting way; by presenting it from the point of view of an innocent young German girl rather than a Jewish person. It is incredibly unique, beautifully written, and will shatter your heart into a million pieces. I am by no means a lover of historical fiction, but this novel has completely changed my mind towards the entire genre. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is either a fan of historical fiction, or to someone who has never enjoyed historical fiction but is looking to break into the genre with a truly wonderful title.
In the end, I suppose Death himself says it best when he declares, “…I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race…I wanted to ask [Liesel] how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant… I am haunted by humans” (Zusak, 2006, p. 550). That, in essence, is the overall message of this work, and why I believe it’s an extremely important work of fiction. The best books are the ones that truly make us think about the world around us, and allow us to examine both the good and the evil within ourselves (and humanity as a whole). While reading The Book Thief, I experienced every emotion a person can possibly experience, and Zusak’s words carried me on a journey I will never forget. I believe even the most picky of readers can find something to gain from this book; if nothing else, it is a stark reminder of their own mortality. Given the current political climate in the United States, it is more important than ever that we remember the atrocities of the Holocaust, and why we spend so much time studying it in school. For, as it is often said, those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it.
Green, J. (2012). The Fault in Our Stars. New York, NY: Dutton Books.
Kirkus. (2006). The Book Thief. Kirkus Reviews, (2).
Zusak, M. (2006). The Book Thief. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.