Recommended for whom?
10th grade and up only. While this book made it onto my top ten list for its originality and powerful portrayal of good and evil and human nature, for a younger audience, all its merits will be lost amid the darkness and violence of WWII.
My rating: 4/5
Favorite character: Death. Hey, don’t judge me until you read the book.
Death has a thankless job. But hey, someone has to do the dirty work, especially now in the 1940s- traveling throughout the world and facing the carnage of the second World War is no easy task, and he does not get a lot of credit. Not that he cares about human opinion. He has seen too much to care.
Therefore, why should he be so fascinated with the life of one little girl? Liesel has lost her parents and her brother and must live with the affable Hans Hubermann and his less-than-affable wife Rosa. Very sad, but this is a common occurrence. Yet Death can’t stop watching Liesel as she steals a book- The Grave-Digger’s Handbook- from the burial site. As he will discover, this is the first of many books that Liesel and her new friend Rudy Steiner steal from the mayor’s library, from book burnings- anywhere they can find them. But being a book thief is a dangerous occupation in Nazi Germany, and you especially don’t want to draw the government’s eye to you when there is a strange fugitive in the basement…
What is good
To this day, I have never read a book which more powerfully portrays the power of words. Liesel’s passion for reading slowly develops over time- it helps her to gain peace and confidence, and it eventually turns into a family ritual that holds them together through Germany’s darkest days of book bonfires.
Zusak doesn’t stop there, however. Liesel finds comfort in books, but she also understands their potential for good or evil. Whether it is Death’s observation that Liesel picks up on Rosa’s profane vocabulary, or the immense fear Liesel has when reading about the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective, her experiences with words encourage Liesel to deal with the horrors around her by writing to encourage others to hold on tight. Slowly but surely, she begins writing her own story, a story which- without spoiling the book entirely- impacts even Death.
Death himself offers us an interesting perspective on human nature. He watches Germany- and the rest of the world- descend into deep darkness, resulting in the deaths of millions, and though he never says it straight out, he hates this kind of evil. He doesn’t understand it. He is ever in awe of humans, especially Liesel, and their ability to do things for good or bad. He winds up the book with one phrase: “I am obsessed with humans.”
Finally, I’d like to point out that even if not for the powerful message of the book, any aspiring author (ahem) or reader should have this on their list simply as an example of good writing. I always look at the skill of the author in storytelling, even if I don’t mention it in the reviews, but believe me- this is one book that deserves points for the sheer excellence of writing. Zusak’s writing taught me how to write in slow motion, gave me an example of what a unique narrator is, and challenged me to branch out and take risks with my own style. As for storytelling… well, folks, I cried, which puts this book on par with the Les Miserables concert and Charlotte’s Web.
What is not good
Like most other books on the subject of World War II, The Book Thief is a dark story, downright disturbing for those who aren’t able to handle it. For example, Liesel (and the reader) sees a macabre stick-figure drawing satirizing Hitler’s genocide, and it frightens her. As far as violence is concerned, people of all ages die (the narrator is Death, after all), and the reader has to watch others suffer.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, Liesel learns a whole array of new profanities from Rosa- usually in German, of course, but Death comes through as always and gives us a helpful translation of them. The swearing is generally within PG-13 rating; the worst words come up in a discussion of whether the dirt on the street is really dirt or something else.
While the content might be tricky for parents of younger children, The Book Thief is the perfect book for its intended audience: more mature readers who understand the power of words for good or for bad.