Ages 12 and up
By Markus Zusak
Alfred A. Knopf
Markus Zusak has published five books. I am the Messenger, published in 2002, received rave reviews and won multiple awards. The Book Thief, his most recent and even more highly regarded, has been translated into thirty languages. The book is broken into parts—each containing short chapters peppered with important information in bolded notes—making the nearly six hundred pages move swiftly.
Told from the perspective of Death, the story takes place in a fictional German town on the outskirts of Munich during World War II. Though it’s best not to get involved—Death is there to do a job, not get wrapped up in life—Death takes a special interest in the life of nine-year-old Leisel Meminger. It is through Death’s eyes that we experience the events of Leisel’s life.
Death first met Leisel when he came to take her younger brother Werner. The two were on a train with their mother who was taking them to their new home. No longer able to provide for them, she was surrendering her children to foster care. Their father had long since disappeared; the only clue to his absence was a single word, always whispered, “kommunist.” Because of Werner’s death, the shrinking, fractured family was forced to disembark at the next station and bury his body. It was at his funeral that the book thief, Leisel, acquired her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, which had been dropped in the snow by a careless worker.
When Leisel first arrived at the home of her foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, she refused to exit the car. Her new mama and papa could not seem more different from each other, in appearance or temperament. Rosa, a short, stout, rough and loud woman instantly resorted to yelling and swearing at the child; something Leisel must grow accustomed to. But tall and slender Hans, with his calm, soothing, patient words and kind, silvery eyes, was able to coax the small girl out of the car and into her new home.
Leisel’s days consisted of being teased at school (she could not yet read), adventures with Rudy Steiner (her classmate and neighbor who was constantly begging for a kiss, but who also became her best friend) and Rosa’s constant criticism. Rosa did the laundry and ironing for many of the local residents and Leisel was charged with pick-ups, deliveries and collecting the money.
As the beginning of the war approached, Rosa lost more and more customers as citizens were being urged by the government to spend less, tighten their belts and support the war effort. Among Rosa’s customers were the mayor and his wife; it was from their house that the book thief stole her third book. Her second book was not stolen as much as it was rescued from the fires of a book burning. These books come to mean everything to Leisel, and on a few occasions they come to mean quite a lot to some others as well.
Leisel’s nights were comprised of horrific nightmares, which returned the broken girl to the scene of her brother’s death and the loss of her entire family. But the nights were also filled with Hans’s comforting presence. He was determined to show Leisel love and devotion. He spent his nights by her side for as long as she needed him. If she slept, he slept—upright in a chair in her room. If she woke, he woke and would work to take her mind off the terrors that shook her. The two began to pass the wakeful times with reading lessons. They started with The Gravedigger’s Handbook.
Hans was a painter by trade and supplemented his meager income by playing accordion in the local pubs. As the war approached, Hans had trouble finding work, in part because he refused to join the Nazi party; no one wanted to be found patronizing a business owned by someone who was not a member of the party. Hans began to realize that by not joining the party he was drawing unwanted attention. Though he truly wanted no part of the new order, he decided to apply for membership. Everything about Hans’s life needed to appear perfectly normal, in the most unnatural of times, because he was about to do something extremely dangerous. Hans had agreed to hide a Jew.
Max Vanderburg was the son of a man who saved Hans’s life in World War I. Hans had vowed to repay the debt to that man’s family if ever there was an opportunity, and Max was that opportunity. This situation would put them all— Hans, Rosa, Leisel and Max—in grave danger. Hans made Leisel well aware of the dangers of being discovered and scared any thought of sharing the secret out of her. Things were difficult before, now the family had to make their meager food and fuel stretch to accommodate one more person. They built a hiding spot in the basement and did their best to make their lives appear as if nothing had changed.
Leisel saw a kindred spirit in Max and the two formed a bond. Like her, he arrived at the Hubermann’s door with nowhere else to turn; he’d lost his whole family, and he suffered from nightmares. Leisel began to spend many of her nights comforting and soothing Max, just as Hans had done for her.
Leisel’s small town saw a lot of the war. It was along the path to the Dachau concentration camp so they saw many Jews being transported, saw how they were treated and saw what happened to people who tried to help them. (Hans suffers quite a beating at the hands of some guards after trying to share bread with a clearly starved Jew.) The town was subject to several warnings of air raids. It was during these raids that Leisel’s books became so much more important.
During an air raid, residents were instructed to take shelter in their basements. If they did not have a basement, or if their basement was too shallow (like the Hubermann’s was) then people would gather in a neighbor’s basement. This often meant several people, adults and children, taking shelter in a small space for several hours waiting for a bomb to be dropped on them.
At Rosa’s encouragement, Leisel began reading aloud during these times. It mattered not what she read, just that everyone had something to focus on, something to occupy their minds and relieve them of their fear. Because they could not bring Max with them during the air raids, Leisel’s reading helped keep her mind off of him—alone, and unsafe—in their shallow basement. After the raids, upon her return home, she would share the events of the evening with Max, including detailed information on the weather and how the sky looked.
Death leads readers through Liesel’s life from 1939, at age nine, to 1943, at age thirteen. Leisel grows from a small, fragile child into a strong, capable girl. She forges friendships and acquires knowledge of things that no person should ever have to learn. Readers also come to understand how very much Hans and Rosa love her, though each expresses it in different ways.
Death briefly visits Leisel again in 1945. Tragedy struck her world with a vengeance during an air raid that provided the bombs the residents had prayed would never arrive. But something good happens, and then something surprising and wonderful happens. Death’s third and final encounter with Leisel occurs when she is an old woman, with a full life behind her. And that’s all I’ll say about it because this book is truly worth reading and I’d prefer readers to enter this world without certain information.
This glimpse of life during the war is about those not often considered: the ordinary citizens of a small German town forced to pledge their loyalty to their country and its quest for world domination. What of those citizens, those who had no allegiance to Hitler or the Nazi party, those who opposed the war, those who had no hatred for Jews? They seemed to only have two choices: fake it and live with the pain of guilt, or speak out and face imprisonment, torture, or death.
Zusak creates a riveting narrative, sprinkled with perfect scenes and poignant moments that readers will linger over and allow to roll through their minds and settle in. I found myself re-reading passages and trying to hold tight to the feelings they stirred in me. And in moments of pure literary perfection I found myself hovering in this world, side by side with these full and flawed and human characters, feeling their joy and terror and heartbreak and relief.
Buy the book!