I don’t know how I managed to go so long without reading The Book Thief but it was worth the wait. I thought I would be reading an uplifting story of a young woman who found comfort in the written word while the world crumbled around her but instead I got sucker punched in the feels. While I have some minor quibbles, namely the flash forwarding to the characters’fates, Zusak crafted a near perfect classic.
Death, our narrator, tells the story of our book thief, Liesel Meminger, a young German girl whose mother sends her to live with foster parents outside of Muinch at the start of WWII. Sadly her brother dies on a train ride which leads Liesel to steal her first book, a guide to grave-digging she picked up at her brother’s funeral. With her brother buried and her mother vanished Liesel is left in the care of Hans and Rosa Hubermann on Himmel Street. Liesel’s new papa teaches her to read and the two develop a deep and powerful relationship.
As the war progresses the Hubermanns struggle to make ends meet but a decades long promise is cashed in when Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man, comes to Himmel Street to be hidden by the man whose life was saved in WW1 by Max’s father. This complicates things for the Hubberman’s, this is Nazi Germany after all, but overall the introduction of Max into their home is a welcome one for Liesel. The young girl keeps her family’s secret and becomes very close with Max who creates two stories for her during his time stashed away in the basement; their scenes together paint a picture of a beautiful friendship that transcends age, gender and religion.
“One was a book thief. The other stole the sky.”
Leisel’s book thievery is not limited to stealing the book found near her brother’s graveside and she is discovered by the mayor’s wife stealing a book meant to be burned. Instead of turning her in the lonely woman gives the young girl access to her beautiful library and the two begin a friendship of sorts before Liesel sours it. Liesel continues to visit the library, although in a much less traditional way, and in the end it is the relationships with the mayor’s wife and Max that seal Lisel’s fate.
The whole book is one big gut punch. Zusak does an excellent job of portraying the Germans, who are universally considered the bad guys in WWII, as sympathetic characters. It is made abundantly clear that the Hubermann’s aren’t blindly following the fuhrer although the other townspeople are less sympathetic to the plight of German Jews and there are several characters whose beliefs seem to hover in a grey area. There are a few light moments to soften the blows that go hand in hand with WWII stories like Liesel’s relationship with her neighbor, Rudy, which is one of the most earnest depictions of childhood friendship and early buds of romance I’ve read in a long time.