There is no better way to sum up this profound and moving story than to describe its most profound and moving metaphor: During World War II, a Jewish refugee named Max, who is hiding in a German family's basement, tears out pages of Mein Kampf and whitewashes them. He uses these newly clean pages to write a new story about the bond of shared experience between himself and the family's adopted teenage girl, Liesel.
He gives his story to Liesel as a gift, thereby deepening their bond and cementing the central message of the novel: Words are powerful. They can be both damning and brilliant. And they have equal gravity to be either massively destructive (like Nazi ideology), or redemptive, enlightening and life-giving (like Max's homemade book).
Liesel, who is the book thief of the title, had already had an inkling of this magnetic draw of words — even before she knew how to read. Her first book theft occurred the day she buried her younger brother on the way to their foster home; she stole a guide to grave digging that fell out of one of the gravedigger's pockets. She simply wanted a way to remember not just her dead brother, but how she was feeling at that moment of his burial. After she arrives at her foster home near Munich, her adopted father Hans teaches her to read and she begins to understand more deeply how life-altering words and stories can be.
I'd heard so much about this book before finally picking it up, and I'd always been worried about how much I would really connect with a supposedly "young adult" coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl in Nazi Germany. Let's make one thing clear: Whoever decided to label or market this is as a "young adult novel" made a massive miscalculation. If the YA label is your hesitancy as well, please be assured you can discard it out of hand. I'm not sure where the line between young and adult fiction is, but this belongs on the shelf next to the best of any kind of literature.
My second hesitation was the Death-as-narrator gimmick — I was worried how well it'd work. But, again: Fears were unfounded. Death's voice in this novel is unlike anything I've ever read. It's poetic and imaginative, but straightforward and serious at the same time. In an interview published at the end of the novel, Zusak reveals that he'd started the novel with Death as the heartless soul-reaper you'd expect. But, he says, the story wasn't working. So he created an omniscient Death who simultaneously sympathizes with and is terrified of humanity.
Finally, approximately 99 percent of people who talk about this book do it in such glowing terms that I had that typical too-high expectations hesitancy. I may not have loved this book as much as many, but I did thoroughly enjoy it. It moved me and it made me think, two hallmarks of a great book.
Have you read The Book Thief? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts, but also there's one question in the "for discussion" section at the end on which I'd be interested to hear your take — what is ironic about Liesel's obsession for stealing books?
If you haven't read the book, it is highly, highly recommended.