I recently finished re-reading one of my most favorite books, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Though technically a young adult novel, Zusak’s book tells a brilliant and important story for all ages. Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief highlights the struggles of maintaining friendships and a sense of humanity amidst the hatred, cruelty, and violence of Germany in 1939.
Liesel Meminger arrives to 33 Himmel Street to live with her new foster parents shortly after her brother’s death. Before Liesel is even 10 years old, she has already been torn from her mother and lost her younger brother – and life only gets harder from there. Told from the perspective of death, this ambitious novel follows Liesel’s path in her new life, the relationships she forms there, and the solace she finds in words.
Her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, was a stolen from her younger brother’s gravesite. Though it takes her quite some time to complete the book, with the help of her gentle foster father, a poorly educated man himself, Liesel masters the book, and yearns for more. Over the years her episodes of thievery increase, but the compulsion to read proves a more powerful motive than the rush of burglary.
While reading offers Liesel a temporary respite from her reality, she soon learns the true danger of the real world when she befriends a Jew. Max finds his way to Liesel’s foster family’s front door and things are never the same from then on. The relationship that Liesel builds with her secret housemate plays a powerful but fragile role in her life, one that is defined by Max’s need to stay hidden in Liesel’s basement, his frail health, and his understanding of the power of words.
Though this novel is, at times, incredibly heartbreaking, it has moments of completely pure and simple joy. This dichotomy helps demonstrate the true despair and helplessness that shaped the lives of many people in Nazi Germany; The Book Thief illuminates the power of friendship at a time when maintaining certain relationships could be nearly impossible and positively life threatening.
I don’t believe I could ever really do this book much justice. It’s full of beautiful imagery, devastating loss, ambitious storytelling, childhood nostalgia, transcendent relationships, and a whole lot of heart. In my opinion the New York Times said it best when they reviewed this book as one with the potential to be “life-changing.” No matter what your reading style or genre of choice, this is a book that anyone with even a shred of humanity in them can learn from and appreciate.