From the perspective of children, most societal discrimination is somewhat bleached while their immediate universe is always in focus. When Scout narrated To Kill a Mockingbird, we witnessed a town enveloped in racism but what stayed with us most are the actions of an honourable man and the bylanes of friendship formed between people under unnatural circumstances. Therefore, when Liesel Meminger narrates her story in The Book Thief, it is punctuated with the shadows of a mass genocide but it also, at a visceral level, the story of a little girl. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a story about a girl’s life narrated in her own words albeit by Death.
Opening with the death of Leisel’s brother aboard a train across Germany, this book introduces the narrator Death who tells us a “small fact” – You are going to die. Left in the care of the Hubermann’s by her Communist mother, Liesel is plagued by the memory of her brother’s death. While she has a foul-mouthed foster-mother in Rosa Hubermann, her foster-father Hans Hubermann is every daughter’s dream come true. Liesel grapples with routine nightmares of her brother’s death only to be calmed down by her foster-father who then spends a good part of the night reading to his daughter. When this becomes a way of life no one realizes, but Hans spends every night – rather early morning – reading to Leisel and teaching her how to read.
Leisel gets comfortable in her new neighbourhood, and she befriends the boy with lemon coloured hair – Rudy Steiner. Together, they play football, steal eatables, wreak havoc, and even fall in love. In her new way of life, Leisel’s painter father teaches her the alphabet in the basement by painting them on walls, her mother makes awful pea soup for dinner, she hangs around with her best friend Rudy, and she steals books from book burnings and the mayor’s house to satisfy her thirst for stories and more importantly, words. All is well (apparently) until one night, a Jew, Max Vanderberg, comes to the Hubermann household seeking refuge. Neither knowing the consequences nor fully comprehending the fear, Leisel realizes, among other things, that she’s not the only one who has nightmares.
The Hubermann’s lock up Max in the basement and now Liesel has a secret to hide – from everyone including Rudy Steiner. How she goes on to grasp what’s really happening in her life and the bond she develops with Max are some of the highlights of the story. Whether they get caught, whether they are executed, does Max survive, does Leisel survive, are questions that you should answer for yourself when you read this book.
In writing this book and making Death as the narrator, Markus Zusak has employed one of the best literary voices – that of a child. It’s a tad bit easy not to focus on the concentration camps and the grim of Hitler because you’re busy hiding Leisel’s secret with her and describing the weather to Max. It’s relieving to not know the inner workings of Hans’ mind while hiding Max because he’s being the best-ever father and best-ever husband in times of a crisis. Like I said, the horrors are camoflaged by the gears of interwoven relationships. Not to say that they are absent entirely.
In a few places the book winds you up a little. It could have been shorter, true that. However, the descriptions of clouds, the bonding between Hans and Leisel, and Leisel and Max more than make up for the long narration. Also, Rosa Hubermann surprises the reader by becoming the mother and wife that she was all along. It’s a powerful story, written very well, and sends a subtle message – words are powerful. Words can make you live or die, so be careful which ones you choose. Of course, there are references to how Hitler brought a whole nation to its destruction by his words. In sharp contrast, a family gets along day-on-day by using words the right way. The book is titled so because of many reasons, I suppose. The tangible act of theft and the intangible bridge that books create for Leisel to pull through every day in their refuge. The Book Thief is a splendid story about a girl, her family, her friendships, Death, and above all the triumph of the human spirit.
I would have been proud to present this book to Hitler and say, “Dude, they sheltered a Jew. And if I could help them to do it again, I would. What are you going to do about it?”
My musing about the book can be found here: On Reading Zusak