The Book Thief is a historical fiction novel by Australian author Markus Zusak, later adapted into a film by the same name. It’s the story of little Liesel Meminger and her life in Nazi Germany around the start of World War II.
At the beginning of the book, Liesel and her younger brother are being taken to a foster home on the outskirts of Munich. Unfortunately, her brother doesn’t make it through the journey and is buried in a town on the way to Munich. Young Liesel, who witnesses his death, is left feeling distraught, helpless and quite alone.
The story talks about Liesel’s life in her new home, with her foster parents, neighbours, friends, and how she overcomes her fears and nightmares of having lost her brother. Her foster mother, Rosa Huberman, is a strict and exacting lady, while her foster father is a kind man with a cheery disposition. Liesel and Papa Huberman get along splendidly.
The characters on Himmel Street, where Liesel stays, are pretty quirky and interesting. Zusak develops each of them with a touch of realism that makes them endearing, and, thereby, the book engaging. Liesel also makes some friends playing soccer. However, she’s not that popular at school because unlike the other kids in her form, she can’t read.
But the trauma of having lost her brother keeps haunting Liesel, who has nightmares every night. Papa, noticing this, comes and sits beside her every night to reassure her that all is well and that she is safe. Papa notices a rather peculiar book that Liesel brought with her. It’s the only dear memory of her brother from the day he was buried. ‘The Gravedigger's Handbook’ was the first book she had acquired illegitimately. Papa starts reading to Liesel every night and gradually teaches her to read.
With every passing day, the Nazi Party is stepping up its propaganda, recruiting adults to sign up and show their support for the party, and children to train at the Hitler Youth. As the war draws nearer, Papa and many others are drafted to fight. Soon, the air raid sirens start ringing as the bombings begin. The residents of Himmel Street are forced to take shelter in basements deemed strong enough to withstand a bombing.
The Book Thief talks about friendship, love, kindness, courage, understanding and doing the right thing with an innocent disregard for the consequences etc. And, what’s most interesting about the book, is that the story is narrated by Death, the reaper of souls.
‘When Death tells a story, you really have to listen’.
This provides an interesting perspective. Although an interesting idea, it is hardly original. Vithal Nadkarni writes, ‘Centuries ago, Kathopanishad's anonymous narrator used the trick most effectively. It was for a discourse on life that Death delivers to a precocious kid called Nachiketa!’
War brings with it the loss of life. Zusak’s choice of having Death as the narrator is a curious one. In the first few pages, Death provides an overview of the entire story to us, almost as though preparing us for what is to come. And this warning continues through the book, preparing us for the inevitable.
The personification of death by providing Him a voice, opinions, memories and feelings almost makes one feel for Death. Here, Death witnesses the journey a being takes in life until their time comes.
‘I wanted to tell the Book Thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant’. ~ Death
There aren’t a lot of books written from a German perspective about life in Germany during WW2. And not much is known about the common German people, who became victims of the war in their own way. The book makes for an interesting read. It is the story of Liesel Meminger, the book thief; yet, it is the story about more than just that.