I’m coming to The Book Thief a tad late as this was a sensation when it came out in 2006. After hearing more than one person say that The Book Thief was one of the most amazing – if not the most amazing – books they had ever read, I felt I had to put it on my to-read list. Then this summer I read somewhere that the film version was coming out in the fall, so I immediately ratcheted it up my list.
For those of you who haven’t read it, The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany, and it’s the story of a girl named Liesel Meminger who is sent to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann. She is 9 years old at the start of the book and the story spans the next 5 years of her life.
Liesel’s own father disappeared under mysterious circumstances (it is later speculated that he was taken away due to his Communist activities), her younger brother dies suddenly on their way to Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and Liesel never hears from her mother again. Her days getting adjusted to her new parents are difficult and her nights are consistently filled with nightmares. Rosa Hubermann is like the coarsest sandpaper possible but Liesel finds a loving and kind new father figure in Hans.
The book thief is Liesel, who is illiterate in the beginning of the story and is bullied because of it. But she becomes pulled in by the possibility of words when she picks up a book dropped by the man who was digging the grave of her brother. She takes it home as the one thing she can remember her brother by and Hans, though limited in his own education, begins reading it to her and tries to teach her to read.
Over the next five years Liesel continues to grow in her love for words and books as well as finds her voice. It is, after all, through her ability to write – she ends up writing her autobiography in a blank journal – that we come to know her story.
The main action in the book revolves around the Hubermanns’ decision to hide a Jewish man in their basement. The story comes to an emotionally powerful conclusion.
The book is unique in terms of structure and writing. First of all, it’s narrated by Death, a surprisingly human and, on many occasions, humorous voice that helps create the intimate feeling of the book.
It’s probably fair to say that in all the years of Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve the Fuhrer as loyally as me. A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both. Still, they have one thing I envy. Humans, if nothing else, have the good sense to die. (page 491)
Once in awhile, Death would speak like this:
The reply floated from his mouth, then molded itself like a stain to the ceiling. (page 200)
And he would insert bold alerts in the middle of a page like this:
* * * THE SITUATION OF HANS AND * * *
Very sticky indeed.
In fact, frightfully sticky.
And Death also does a lot of foreshadowing – that is, he (why do I assume it is a he?) will tell you the fate of a particular character or situation and then either in the next chapter or later on in the book, when the timing is right, tell the actual story.
I didn’t mind most of the literary devices used, though I found the bold alerts a bit distracting. My other mild complaint is that I felt the book started to drag a bit 2/3 of the way through…at that point I really began wondering if I was missing something, why The New York Times laud this a “LIFE CHANGING” book on the front cover. This is a 550-page book and while it is very readable, I was feeling at that point that it was a hundred pages too long. Then I got to the final part and things really picked up. Amazing, those final 55 pages made up for whatever disappointment I was feeling earlier.
While I wouldn’t say that this book changed my life (maybe because I picked it up after so many years of hype? and maybe because I’m comparing it to other works on the Holocaust like Anne Frank’s story), it was a satisfying read and a wonderfully told story I won’t soon forget.