Monday, July 26, 2010

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I left the teaching profession seven years ago to pursue other career opportunities, and while there are many things I miss about the profession, I haven't felt a strong urge to get back into the classroom until I read Markus Zusack's The Book Thief. After reading the first few chapters, I was literally itching to get in front of a group of students to talk about this book. Chock full of literary devices from personification to foreshadowing, amazing well-rounded characters, and a beautifully-told story, this book deserves to be read, talked about, re-read, and talked about some more.

I've previously been so focused on reviewing the latest and greatest reviews that I haven't seemed to have put much of a dent in my list of "older" books I want to read and review. The Book Thief has been on my radar for a quite a while (it was published in the U.S. in 2006!), so I finally decided to download the Kindle edition a few weeks ago.

Set in WWII Germany, the book is narrated by Death. Death first sees the young girl Liesel Meminger, whom he calls "the Book Thief," on a train when he came to take away her younger brother. The two children were going to live with foster parents in the fictional town of Molching, Germany. It was at her brother's burial that Death witnessed Liesel steal her first book, The Gravedigger's Handbook. Soon after, Liesel arrives on Himmel (Heaven) Street, the residence of her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. So begins the coming-of-age story of a young girl growing up in the middle of a brutal war.

The cast of characters is diverse. Some include:
  • Hans, the kind hearted accordian playing foster father who stays up late at nights teaching Liesel how to read. A promise he made many years ago puts his entire family in serious danger.
  • Rosa, the sharp-tongued, no-nonsense mother who, beneath the hard exterior, is just as kind hearted as her husband
  • Rudy Steiner, the somewhat naughty, hilarious, and adventurous classmate who becomes Liesel's closest friend and accomplice in many adventures including book theft. He also has lemon-colored hair and wants to be Jessee Owens.
  • Max Vandenberg, the guilt-ridden Jew with whom Liesel identifies and develops a close bond.
  • Ilsa Hermann, the grief-stricken mayor's wife who allows Liesel to steal books from her library.
  • Death, the sardonic and often "in-your-face narrator" who is haunted by humans. 
 As you can imagine, losing your entire family and being sent to live with strangers is hard enough. Now imagine this happening during WWII where air raids demolish entire neighborhoods and witnessing hundreds of Jewish people being marched to concentration camps is not an uncommon occurrence.

Markus Zusak's words are beautiful and oftentimes heartbreaking. I marked passage after passage. Here are a couple:

"Each night, Liesel would step outside, wipe the door, and watch the sky. Usually is was like spillage-cold and heavy, slippery and gray-but once a while some stars had the nerve to rise and float, if only for a few minutes. On those nights, she would stay a little longer and wait. 'Hello, stars.'" (Location 548, Kindle edition). 

"She had seen her brother die with one eye open, one still in a dream. She had said goodbye to her mother and imagined her lonely wait for a train back home to oblivion. A woman of wire had laid herself down, her scream traveling the street, till it fell sideways like a rolling coin starved of momentum. A young man was hung by a rope made of Stalingrad snow. She had watched a bomber pilot die in a metal case. She had seen a Jewish man who had twice given her the most beautiful pages of her life marched to a concentration camp. And at the center of all of it, she saw the Fuhrer shouting his words and passing them around." (Location 7214, Kindle edition). 

While there is a serious and often heart-wrenching tone throughout the book, there are many lighthearted moments, mostly involving Liesel and Rudy on one of their adventures as they still find ways to be kids during a devastating time.

If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend it. I'd also advise adults not to be put off by the "young adult" label. It was first published for adults in 2005 in Zusak's native Australia, and was inspired by true stories Zusak heard from his mother.

Read an exerpt here.

Reading Level: Young Adult | Hardback ISBN:  978-0-375-83100-3, Knopf Books, March 2006 |   Paperback: 978-0-375-84220-7, Knopf Books, September 2007 | Source: purchased Kindle Edition 

Buy it from an Independent Bookstore. 

Buy it on Amazon.

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  1. I read this book somewhat recently not knowing it was Young Adult, to be very surprised later when I saw it on our library's young adult shelf! I guess the distinction is not always apparant...

  2. This is a fantastic book! I just finished it the other night and am saving it for my kids to read someday. They're just 3 and 1 1/2, so it'll be a few years,'ll be right there waiting for them.

  3. Shelley,
    I read an interview where Markus Zusak said he didn't write the book w/ a particular audience in mind. He just had a story to write.

    Book Mama,
    It's definitely a book worth saving for your kids. I'm considering adding a copy to our home library.

  4. This is an amazing, amazing book! One of these days I will read more from Zusak.

  5. And at the center of it, she saw the Führer shouting his words and passing them around.
    what page is this quote on?

  6. The Book Thief is one of my favorite books, but I disagree with its inclusion on the Middle Grade list. It's a waste to read a book this fabulous when you are too young to fully comprehend how well it's written.

    1. absolutely! Children of middle school age would probably DISLIKE it and never pick it up again...what a shame. This book is amazing!