Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Book Thief

Title:               The Book Thief
Category:       Historical
Grade:            15+
Author:          Markus Zusak
Publisher:       Alfred A. Knopf
Place:              New York
Date:               2006
Pages:             550

The Book Thief turns historical fiction into poetry, realism, and suspense all at once.  Liesel arrives in Munich as a foster child after burying her younger brother who died along the way.  She is delivered into the hands of the cantankerous Mrs. Hubermann, who uses the word “pig” in almost every sentence, and her kindly, silver-eyed foster father, Hans Hubermann.  It is Hans who sits up with her every night through her nightmares and eventually teaches her to read from the book she stole at her brother’s funeral.  Unable to resist the written word, Liesel steals more books over time, even dragging her best friend Rudy along to thieve from the mayor’s wife.  Nazi Germany is a dangerous time for the Hubermanns, as Hans is viewed suspiciously for his kindness toward the local Jews.  Eventually, the Hubermanns begin sheltering a Jew themselves, hiding him in the basement, and Liesel finds another sympathizer for her passion.  The air raids eventually destroy her family and shatter her world, but she pens them so vibrantly in her own journal that Death himself is moved to narrate this powerful and sophisticated tale. 

Zusak’s characterization is remarkable, particularly of Death who sees the world in colors and breaks the text often with announcements, translations and commentary.  The need for literature and the power of the written word runs deeply alongside more common themes of Holocaust and teen work such as independence, identity and human equality.  Though this book is definitely intended for older teens and even adults, Death’s unusual and often humorous thoughts and interjections as well as Zusak’s masterful ability to breathe realism into his characters help give the novel a contemporary feel and keep it from being dry or tedious. The sheer size, vocabulary, and subject matter make this book most appropriate for older teens in general.  Though not as chilling as Night, Book Thief deals with weighty and often troubling subject matter.  While I expected this, Book Thief was, as a whole, not what I was expecting at all.  I was surprised and pleased by the portrayal of Death, particularly in his rather bald, inhuman perspective on the events, his text interjections, which provided some much-needed humor, and especially his interpretation of the world through color.  While the book is engrossing, it is not particularly fast-paced, and teens seeking intense action or lurid Holocaust depictions will be disappointed in it.  Zusak seems to be best at creating fully developed characters and the relationships among them.  It is a worthwhile read, both from a writer’s standpoint and as an extremely deep piece of fiction with a beautiful and satisfying conclusion. In a time where books are often overshadowed by modern technology and entertainments, The Book Thief ably demonstrates the value and power of books to society.


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