Author: Markus Zusak
Genre: Historical Fiction
Date published: 2007
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I first noticed this book during the summer before my freshman year of high school. It appeared alongside The Diary of Ann Frank on the English Honors reading list, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t very keen on the idea that I was being told what I had to read during my last two weeks of freedom (I’ve never been the type to spread out my summer homework. Why prolong the agony?) After slowly stumbling through The Book Thief’s confusing first chapter, I was even more indignant about the injustice that is summer homework and slightly worried that I wasn’t cut out for the rigors of high school. But my brief bout of pouting aside, I quickly became enthralled by the book, finishing off the remainder of my summer immersed in the world of Holocaust-era Germany.
The Book Thief follows the life of Liesel, a young girl living in Germany who is sent to live with foster parents right before World War II starts. The novel chronicles the small-town adventures she embarks on and the wide array of relationships she fosters, highlighted by the several times she steals books. Liesel’s relatively happy, uncomplicated life becomes dangerous when her family takes in a Jew – an unspeakable crime in Nazi Germany. The novel is narrated by Death personified, a point of view that enriches the story (but also was the direct cause of my confusion while reading that first chapter).
Of course, as can be expected from a story set in Nazi Germany narrated by Death, the novel is dark. Zusak excels, however, at putting a positive spin on the atrocities of the time without ever diminishing their weight. A major theme of the book is the power of words, particularly the immense weight Hitler’s words had over all of Germany, and the destruction that followed. By means of a beautifully crafted story within the story, a parable written by Max, the Jew Liesel’s family hides, Zusak explores the great constructive power words can have.
I have read The Book Thief probably around six or seven times since that first time almost five years ago, and each time I’m as emotionally invested in and as blown away by the story as I originally was. Even with Death’s affinity for spoilers (you’ll know the ending to the story about halfway through, but don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you), tears stream down my face every time I read the book. Yet this novel is so much more than a sob story: it’s a masterful destruction of stereotypes, a love letter to human nature, a case study of the purest form of friendship. This book truly makes me believe in the goodness of humanity, an incredible feat for a Holocaust story.
I would recommend this book to everyone: its uplifting message, unflinching honesty, and superb writing will forever keep it in my top-ten list.
Review by Laura Baumgartner, A&S '16