Who better to narrate a story set during World War II in a small town outside of Munich than Death? Death is everywhere between 1939 and 1943, when Liesel Meminger is fostered by the Hubermans of Himmel Street. Death meets her when he comes for her brother in 1939 and something about Liesel captures his interest. In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Death tells her story, punctuated with hints about the future, observations about humanity, and background information. This is a deeply affecting book, written in spare but powerful language.
Liesel Meminger is dogged by tragedy. Her mother cannot afford to keep them and she and Liesel’s father have been labeled as communists, enemies of the new Reich. Liesel is taken in by Hans and Rosa Huberman, who are almost but not quite as poor as the Memingers. Liesel never sees or hears from her mother again. Liesel is then tormented at school until Hans helps her improve her reading. She makes friends, but eventually looses both of them (one permanently). The ultimate tragedy, one that I would have thought would irreparably break her, comes late in the book. It seems as though fate is taking everything from her, a piece at a time: her family, her dignity, her friends, food from her table, heat from the house. What makes it bearable are Hans’ affection and care and words.
Liesel steals her first book at her brother’s funeral. She steals another almost a year later. With Hans’ help, she learns to read them fluently. She eventually takes to stealing books from the mayor’s wife’s library. I’m hard pressed to say whether its the stories or the words that help Liesel cope. The stories provide an escape during dark times in the air raid shelters and cold basements. Liesel’s friend, Max, the Jew the Hubermans are hiding, constructs fables to make sense of the dangerous world they both live in. The words help her express her feelings, giving her catharsis. Max’s fables also help them give shape to the feelings of anger and futility and yearning hope they feel.
Words are incredible powerful in this book. It helps that they have the force of history behind them to fill in the gaps. Though there is little description in The Book Thief, I could still picture places like the Hubermans’ basement and the air raid shelter, Rosa’s kitchen, and parts of Himmel Street that mattered to Liesel. If there weren’t so much emotion packed into this book, I would have described it as underwritten. It’s actually quite a clever book. Late in the story, Liesel is given a blank book to write in and she starts writing her story, calling it The Book Thief. There are so many layers of narration here. There’s Death telling Liesel’s story, Liesel telling her story, Death telling us about what he reads in her book. There’s Max’s copy of Mein Kampf, which ironically saved his life. Max paints it white, then writes his own stories over it. In the book, you can see the original text peeking out through thin parts in the paint. Through the understated writing, I saw this as an unstated metaphor of life as a palimpsest. It’s astonishing to see through to the bones of the book’s structure the way that Zusak allows.
The Book Thief deserves to be read and felt. It will break your heart, but it will shine a light into a small, dark place in history.