Markus Zusak: The Book Thief

by Rachel Baker on May 28, 2009

the_book_thiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of those books that I suspect will be with me for a lifetime.  One I wish I could make EVERYONE read.  Here’s the funny thing:  It took me months to get through.  Seriously, months.

I first started this book sometime back in February, and could only read a few pages at a time.  It was weird and odd and the flow was a bit too scattered in my opinion.  The narrator told you what was going to happen in the end and it was a period in human history I knew about, so it seemed the outcome was going to be dreary and sad.  In retrospect, I think time period was why I kept putting it off.  I don’t think I wanted to get to the end of the book.

Well, over the weekend, I hunkered down and read the last half of the book.  By Sunday morning, I was sobbing as I finished the final pages. I couldn’t read the last 50 pages without putting the book down every couple pages to ingest the words and prepare myself for the next few pages. The last couple chapters took me several hours and I had to stop so my vision would clear enough to read the words.  And I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

The Book Thief is genuis.  The book is about a little girl, placed in the late 1930s in Germany.  Liesel is nine, illiterate and I suspect from a Jewish family (this much is not completely clear).  Liesel’s story begins on a train with her mother and her sick little brother, she and her brother are being taken to live with their new foster parents who live in Molching, Germany.  Her brother never makes it and her mother is never seen from again.  This is the first time the narrator “meets” Liesel.  See, Liesel’s little brother dies on that train, he’s buried in a tiny little cemetary and our narrator is Death.

Liesel is illiterate but is wise enough to know she has nothing to remember her brother and oddly decides to steal the Grave Digger’s Manual from the cemetary.  This becomes her link to her little brother.  Death is taken aback by this theft and thus our story begins.

Over the course of time, Liesel’s foster father teaches her to read with this prized possession of her’s.  During the years, Hitler’s reign becomes more powerful and during a book burning party, she steals her second book.  This second theft is the catalyst for an odd friendship with the Mayor’s wife.

The course of this book takes place in a span of several years, we figure out at the end, Liesel is a teenager, but we don’t really know what age.  During this time, Liesel has much heartbreak and grief and she has many instances where she “runs into Death”…and Death takes notice of her each time.

I remember reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” but I do not remember having such a profound reaction after completing the book.  Obviously, when we read historical books, we pretty much know the outcome, we know someone is going to die and there’s going to be a sad ending when we read specifically about Hitler’s reign.  However, I can’t think of one book I’ve ever read narrated by Death.

Having Death as a narrator gives the reader an insight which is a bit more surreal in my opinion. This technique, when done well, makes us ponder the emotions rather than just the words.  I didn’t get lost in Liesel’s life, I got lost in the how the times effected her life and her actions.  I got lost in knowing the sadness was going to happen at the end and hoping it wasn’t going to be her.  I wanted Liesel to live a wonderful life after “it was all over”, but I also knew it would be filled with much grief.  Death tells us at the very beginning how much sadness there will be – he didn’t account for the pages getting soaked by my tears, I don’t think, but he let it be known the ending was going to be emotionally brutal.  Death explains things to the reader in a way which made this reader truly understand what was going on in the late 30s-early 40s Germany in a way no history book has every allowed me to understand.

I mentioned The Diary of Anne Frank. In my humble opinion, I would suggest school systems across the country to put The Book Thief on thier summer reading lists for high school students – the summer before having to read The Diary of Anne Frank.  I think kids would get more out of it, and then, I would have them write a comparison essay on the two books, more specifically, the main characters, during the year.

The Diary of Anne Frank is a classic, but The Book Thief is more suited to today’s teenager.  Anne Frank was a Jewish girl, Leisel Meminger was being raised as a German to save her life (this is my own understanding of why she was living with German Foster Parents). Combining these books would be an opportunity for an actual understanding of the way life was for young kids during that time.

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