I’m frugal with my five-star ratings, but any book that can make me cry deserves all the stars.
When I first read The Book Thief at sixteen, I didn’t see what the fuss was all about. It was good, but not great. I liked the writing, the story, and enjoyed the characters well enough, but it didn’t make an impression.
This time around, the book absolutely wrecked me.
I picked it up for one of my summer grad school classes and it was love from page one. I opted for the audiobook and soaked in every minute of my daily commute. Zusak’s writing is incredible. The characters are well-formed, with realistic development and motivations. The book’s themes about the power of words and the inconsistency of humanity are so well-implemented, I can’t get them out of my head. It’s taken me a month to sit and write out this review because there’s just so much to think about.
Reading The Book Thief as an adult was also a very personal experience. I’ve recently experienced several deaths and this book helped me grieve. I finished the same day I learned one of my favorite library patrons had died and the last fifteen minutes of the audiobook had me sobbing uncontrollably on my way home from work. I was a total traffic hazard. For someone who doesn’t cry often, this kind reaction is noteworthy. I haven’t connected with a story on this visceral a level in a long time.
Overall, this is the kind of book that you can’t look away from. It’s the kind of story that haunts you for years after reading and keeps bringing you back for more. It’s the kind of story that worms its way into your being. It sounds strange, but I feel a more complete person after reading this book.
The Book Thief, on the surface, is the coming-of-age story of a young girl in Nazi Germany during the heat of World War II. Liesel is an unusual protagonist for a YA novel, as she is a child for most of the book. We readers are drawn to stories about readers, and Zusak gives us a wonderful girl to follow. What I love so much about Liesel’s development is her relationship with words. At the beginning of the story, as she struggles to learn to read, she grasps for words. While she cannot yet articulate it, she recognizes their power and potential. As Zusak so beautifully writes, ““The words were on their way, and when they arrived, she would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.”
Then, as the title suggests, she begins stealing books. She steals from the fires of Nazi book-burnings and from the Mayor’s house. She devours words, reading her books over and over again.
As time passes, she takes another step and begins reading aloud to others. Amid the backdrop of air raids, Jews being sent to work camps, and the harsh realities of being poor, Liesel uses words to bring hope to those around her. She reads to Max (the Jewish man her family shelters) while he is ill and her neighbors during air raids. One woman is so moved that she has Liesel come over each week to read to her.
One of the most poignant moments in the novel is when Max writes Liesel a story. He creates an allegory that describes the power that words have to both create and destroy. After all, Hitler rose to power because of his rhetorical prowess. He uses words to create an atmosphere of fear. In the story, Max contrasts this abuse with the ability of words to hold people together in solidarity and resistance.
By the end of the book, Liesel has fully mastered the art of words. She begins writing. She goes from consuming to sharing to creating. Liesel’s words have power: after all, it is Liesel’s story that has so captured the attention of the narrator (more on that in a bit). In the end, words save Liesel’s life. When her town is bombed, the only reason she survives is because she fell asleep in the basement writing.
While Liesel’s narrative is fully fleshed out, I do not think she is the most important character in the novel. Her story provides a framework for a larger story, one that is significantly deeper.
The book is narrated by Death. This is an odd choice, but Zusak pulls it off so well. When Death crosses paths with Liesel at a young age, it becomes fascinated with her story. Through its eyes, the story of a young girl’s childhood amid the brutalities of war becomes a larger story about the profound, contradictory nature of humanity.
While Liesel is bound to her historical time and place, Death’s gaze is all-encompassing. Death sees the broad scope, all the colors, of life: fear, misery, wretchedness, beauty, glory, and love. World War II provides a fantastic framework to explore the question of how humans can be capable of incredible goodness and still commit such terrible atrocities. Death ponders, “The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both”. It cannot idealize humanity, but it cannot turn away. There’s something about the experience of being human that is both wretched and mesmerizing. Death literally holds this tension as it carries its victims away. Humans may live their entire lives afraid of dying, but as Death’s his closing lines say, “I am haunted by humans”.
Because the protagonist and narrator are not typical for a YA novel, it’s been questioned whether The Book Thief should be considered YA at all. Considering I connected more with the story as an adult than as a teen, there’s definitely an argument to be made there. However, Liesel’s voice isn’t the one that speaks so powerfully to young adult readers. Death’s is. I get this idea from Karen Coates, who says in a chapter from the Handbook of Research on Children’s and Young Adult Literature:
“Like Death, young adults are faced with idealist expectations sold to them in the narratives of childhood, but must also face the incommensurability of the lives and bodies they inhabit with the representations they imagine as ideal.”
The tension articulated by Death is the most important aspect of the book and it’s why I think this book absolutely falls into the category of YA. After all, young adulthood is all about living in tension. On the one hand, teens feel invincible. Life is an open book, filled to the brim with possibilities. They can go anywhere, do anything. On the other hand, as a teenager, the idealized nature of childhood is stripped away. The curtain is pulled back; the great and powerful Oz is just a man. Young adults begin to see that the world is a complicated place. Its systems do not adhere to a moral or ethical code. Life is messy, tragic, and sometimes downright unfair. Somehow, teens bear the tension of both possibility and reality. They’re no longer idealistic children, but they’re not jaded adults. This is why The Book Thief is so important in the YA canon, for it provides a model of how to balance the weight of life’s inconsistencies.
I love this quote from Death, found near the end of the book:
“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
The best stories have the power to teach us what it means to be human. It’s been a long time since I’ve come across a writer who is able to accomplish this as well as Zusak. Through Liesel’s growth as a reader, he comments on the power of story. Through Death’s narration, he gives readers a journey through the inconsistencies of human nature. Zusak takes us into the darkest, most wretched depths of humanity and shows us that there is also light, love, and hope. Coming off my class discussion and writing this post, I’m now convinced that The Book Thief is a story I will return to time and time again. I have no doubt it will endure as a classic in the larger canon of YA literature.
- Check out The Protagonist Podcast’s discussion of The Book Thief in episode 180. I listened to this recently and thoroughly enjoyed Joe and Todd’s discussion of the book’s characters and themes.
- Here’s an interview with Zusak from 2009, where he shares some of his inspiration behind the book.
- If you like The Book Thief, be sure to pick up I Am the Messenger, which is also by Zusak. I’ve read it multiple times and enjoyed it more with each reread.
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