- What: The Book Thief
- Who: Marcus Zusak
- Pages: 552 pages
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2005
- The lit: of 5 flames
Do you ever feel like a book has it all? Hardly ever. It’s a challenge to find a book that engages you; perfectly utilizes a plethora of literary devices; has poetic writing without seeming over the top or losing you; tells a really good story; and has powerful themes. When you do come across this rare occurrence, you have to pause and think, “Wow. I loved every part of that book.”
Well, I guess you could say 2021 is off to a great start because I’ve already found a book that has everything. And I finished it only 16 days into the year. That greatness came in the form of Marcus Zusak’s historical fiction novel, The Book Thief, which Kyle had — for good reason — been recommending to me for awhile.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also tell you that this novel somehow made me both laugh and cry. I don’t know how Zusak accomplished so much in 500 pages, but I’m sure glad he did.
Nazi Germany is on the verge of European domination when nine-year-old Liesel is en-route to her new foster parents’ home outside of Munich. Nazism itself is the exact reason why her mother is leaving her and her brother to grow up with complete strangers; they’ll be better off this way. While on the train, her brother dies unexpectedly, and mother and daughter are forced to bury him in an unknown cemetery in an unknown town.
It’s here that Liesel finds a book that will unknowingly change her life: The Gravedigger’s Handbook. She steals it and takes it with her to her new home. The book bonds her to her new parents, especially her new father, and will teach her how to read and write and appreciate the beauty of words. As she grows and the Holocaust and anti-Semitism rapidly expand, Liesel learns that books and stories are one of the few joys in this new life, and she starts an epic life of book thievery.
She, along with her best friend, Rudy, take risks to steal a book every now and then that will sweep her away from the ugly reality of Nazi Germany, but the risks become even greater when her new family starts hiding a Jewish man in their basement. As the risks grow, so do the power and importance of words and stories for a man with nothing and for a young girl who has experienced her own fair share of trauma. It’s these stories that will bring some peace to four people whose lives are becoming increasingly fraught with danger every day.
I struggled to write the intro to this post because I didn’t know exactly what to say — or rather what not to say. I was rereading the notes I had taken while devouring this book, and I realized I had a positive note for every single aspect you can think of when critiquing one.
Interesting story with engaging writing? Check and check.
All of the emotions? All of the checks.
Powerful literary devices, such as metaphors, similes, and imagery? Check, check, check and more checks.
That’s when it dawned on me that this book deserved an intro proclaiming its perfection. I know that’s a very bold statement and one that I so rarely make when reviewing books, but that’s honestly how I felt about The Book Thief. I only have so many words to write, though, so let’s hone in on some of my favorite qualities of this five-flame fiction.
The first noteworthy quality lies within the narrator who may also be the most important character in this book, especially at this time in history. That would be Death. It may seem odd that a state of being would narrate a novel, but this may have been the best decision Zusak made when writing it. For one thing, Death so perfectly illustrates the strong personification in this novel. The narrator itself is personified and is surprisingly the most caring and charming “thing” to tell a story that I’ve ever read. Death has phenomenal voice, engaging you from the start. Here’s a great example:
“A halo surrounded the grim reaper nun, Sister Maria. (By the way — I like this human idea of the grim reaper. I like the scythe. It amuses me.)”The Book Thief
You also sometimes forget who the narrator is as it really is playing a third-party role. Then, it’ll make a bold statement (such as “my workload increased” when World War II had just started) that reminds you not only who is narrating but also of the severity of this point in time.
Oh what the hell. Here’s one more great example:
“I actually feel quite self-indulgent at the moment, telling you all about me, me, me. My travels, what I saw in ’42. On the other hand, you’re a human — you should understand self-obsession.”The Book Thief
Similarly, Zusak’s imagery and personification are so powerful yet natural that you flow right over his similes, metaphors, and descriptions without a second thought — until you reread a line that makes you in awe of Zusak’s proficiency and elegance as a writer. Here are some examples (seriously, I took a ton of notes and highlighted so many lines in this book):
- “His teeth were like a soccer crowed, crammed in.”
- “A draft made itself known. Something like the imagined breath of a corpse.”
- “The clouds were dirty, like footprints in melting snow.”
- “A woman of wire had laid herself down, her scream traveling the street, until it fell sideways like a rolling coin starved of momentum.”
But let’s put the writing, the technique, and Zusak’s decision-making aside for a second. All of those things are superb in this book, but it derives so much of its power from being not just an engaging story but also one that tells many powerful themes.
Zusak uses an unprecedented time of ugly humanity to proclaim the importance and power of words — both good and bad. Sometimes words can be so influential that the nastiness of them can be overlooked and believed and can hypnotize an entire nation, which is exactly how Hitler rose to power and how so many people came to worship him. And sometimes words have the ability to keep us alive and to give us life. For Max, the Jewish man living in Liesel’s basement, he dreams of crushing Hitler’s hateful words and injecting his own as his way of taking back the freedom he has since lost.
It’s Zusak’s themes of stories and storytelling that really give me all of the feels though. As The Book Thief professes, stories as a whole possess an even stronger magnitude than the strong individual words of which they comprise. This is why we must continue to tell our stories and history — the right histories and not the ones that are molded to fit the narratives that suit us best. This book epitomizes the importance of itself — the importance of books as a whole. Smaller stories about one or a few people always fit into the context of the larger world and of humanity, which is why books and reading are essential to life itself. I don’t know if Zusak set out to write this meta of a book, but he certainly succeeded in making me grateful for each and every story I’ve ever read. That definitely includes his own.