Hello, hello! This book is one of my top reads for the year so far, which is not saying too much because I haven’t read a ton this year so far that are new books. However, this book was amazing.
Customary warning: This is a reminder that these are my personal opinions. My thoughts and feelings are not your thoughts and feelings. I may not always be the target audience for a book; sometimes I am. If I do not like a book, that doesn’t mean you’ll dislike it. If I love a book or simply like a book, you may hate it. Take everything I say with this knowledge. If it sounds interesting to you despite what I’ve said, then go ahead and read it. You’ll only know you like something if you read it yourself.
That being said… Spoilers ahead.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Synopsis From The Book
When Death has a story to tell, you listen.
It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.
Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.
In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.
Drama – Historical | YA – M |War, Death, Suicide, Genocide (Holocaust), Depression, Hate Speech | Identity, Perseverance, Humanity, Morality, The Power of Words, How Humans Hurt Each Other, The Power of Humanity
Initial Thoughts Before Reading:
I was gonna read this after American Dirt, but I took a break and read Beloved first. As for this one. I know a hundred good things about it but I have never been able to get my hands on a copy. Now I have 2 (kindle and hard cover). When I started reading this novel, I started digitally, and got about 50 pages in before I gave up. I couldn’t do it. I was falling asleep. I was not really bored, because the writing style was electric but I couldn’t read it.
Thus, I start again for OWLS with my physical copy, like I had originally intended before I went to Italy. Here is to the best of luck.
Initial Thoughts After Reading:
Now listen. This book was just as good as I had always heard and I think I would have HATED it if I had continued to read it digitally. Something about words, just hit me with a physical book. However, that is not the issue here. I LOVE this book so much. From the way the story is told to the the narrator, everything about this book is so very haunting. I’ve always known the last line of this book, but I didn’t quite understand it. Now I do and this is an experience that I will never turn away from. This book is amazing. So very amazing, in so many different ways.
As a note, my copy is the Anniversary Edition which is a mostly white cover, like white paint on top of Mein Kampf. However the original cover is definitely the dominos for them Rudy is almost taken by the Gestapo, and is a great symbol for how so much can come crumbling apart when one domino falls.
I had a hard time deciding if this was YA or MG, and I decided with YA. If you disagree, let me know, but I do think it was written for a bit older audience.
Prologue: The story is told from the perspective of death as he watches a girl named Liesel Meminger grow up. She is who he calls the book thief and he met her three times before he recollected her. The first is when her brother died. The second is when a pilot dies. The third is when a bombing occurs. And then we get into how her story progresses from the first time, when she first saw death.
Part 1: She was on a train with her mother in 1939. Her brother died in the carriage, and he had to be buried in the snow and ice. Liesel had collapsed in sorrow and had stollen a book that had fallen from a man’s pocket. She didn’t intend to steal it, she found it and kept it as a momento for her brother even though she could not read. Then her mother took her to her new foster parents, Rosa and Han Hubermann. Her mother was sickly and her father was a communist, so she did not know him. She was given to the foster parents to raise because she could not be raised by her mother. The Hubermann’s take good care of her and she learns to care for them. She starts school, where it is found she can’t read or write, and that begins to change and when she has nightmares Hans cares for her with music.
Liesel has blonde hair and brown eyes, and is enrolled in the BDM, band of german girls, as it is mandatory. She takes care of work with Rosa. She met Rudy a week after she arrived to the Hubermanns, when she was playing soccer with the other kids. They became quick friends and Rudy once challenged her to a race to get a kiss from her. They were inseparable. When Rudy was younger, he had painted himself black and ran around outside after Jesse Owen’s magnificent win at the Olympics, because he wanted to be like Jesse Owens. He was told that was not a good thing to do and that he shouldn’t want to be like black people or Jews, he didn’t really understand. Liesel has a bed wetting incident that starts Hans teaching her how to read and write at night and at home, as extra lessons on top of school. One day at school, Liesel is humiliated when she can’t read a book and she beats some boys up at recess. She breaks down crying with Rudy on the way home.
Part 2: On December 17th, after WWII began, Liesel finished her first stolen book. We learn her brother’s name was Werner. Liesel continues to read and on Christmas she gets two books. However money begins to run out and Rosa stops being able to wash laundry for the rich, because they stop wanting her to. By Liesel’s birthday there is not much money and she does not get a gift. Liesel has been sending letters to her mother who can not be found because “they” might have done something to her. Hans is called a coward by his biological son, for not joining the Nazi party. He paints Jewish houses, and apparently over the slurs written on those houses, and he was not accepted into the party (not that applied at first, but he understands the danger). Liesel steals another book on Hitler’s birth celebration bonfire after finding out that the Nazis hate communists. She understands her mother is a communist and she is slapped by Hans after she says “i hate hitler” out loud. Liesel steals the book after she sees that books weren’t burned in the bonfire and she was seen. She hides the one book she could take as the others are burned and she goes home.
Part 3: On the way home, Liesel shows the book to Hans who does not chastise her but gets the idea to take a copy of Mein Kampf to help a Jew who he had been helping. He ends up getting a copy in an attempt to join the Nazi party, they won’t accept him, and gives the copy to another man who gives the copy plus papers to a man named Max. Max uses the papers and is able to move from where he was hiding, on his way to Hans. Liesel, on the other hand, learns that she was seen by the wife of the mayor who then allows her to read at her house. Liesel begins to read there and at home. She and Rudy begin to steal food from farms and others. Max arrives at Hans’ house.
Part 4: Max is the son of a man who had basically helped save Hans’ life in WWI. Years before Hans had repainted a house and revoked his application, or said he was reconsidering, to the Nazi party after Kristallnacht. He was never taken away because people knew he was waiting although he wouldn’t be accepted. He was approached by a man named Walter to help Max. Max was born in 1916, and is 24/25 when he arrives. When he was younger he got into fights and learned how to properly fight, and got into matches with Walter. When Kristallnacht came, Walter helped Max escape and for years kept Max hidden until he could no longer. They agreed to try Hans, which was how Max got to Hans. Hans and rosa accept him, immediately springing into action on how to deal with him keeping them all home because they are ‘sick’ to figure it out. Hans tells Liesel what will happen if she ever tells anyone, anyone, about Max. That her books will burn, that she will be taken from them, and that she would never see them again. She vows to tell no one. In time Liesel and Max start to talk, and she asks about Mein Kampf which he tells her little. She keeps her life separate and Rudy is a saving grace for her outside life. Time passes, she still reads at the Mayor’s house, and and Liesel is 12, she gets a new book from her father. Max gives her nothing at first but then he paints her a book from the pages of Mein Kampf called the Standover Man, and gives it to her. She loves it.
Part 5: Liesel and Max continue to paint Mein Kampf. Each night and day Max dreams of fighting Hitler, and he begins exercising again. Liesel later joins him. The mayor fires Rosa, and the mayor’s wife tries to give Liesel a book but Liesel refuses to take it and later tells the woman off. Rudy and Liesel try to get with a new gang of kids to steal but the new boss, Viktor, hates them, and they are forced to find their own route. They steal from the mayor and Liesel gets the book that way, officially being named the book thief. Rudy stands up for a boy at Hitler Youth meetings and gets punished for it, to the point where he and the leader boy get into a fight on the streets. The boy, Franz, cuts Rudy’s hair and humiliates him, which makes Rudy stop going to meetings all together. It is only when he’s offered to join another group that he starts going to meetings again. After seeing Viktor again by accident, Liesel’s copy of the book she stole was sent into the watery river and Rudy got it back for her but never asked for her to kiss him again.
Part 6: In the winter Liesel brings Max snow and they build a snowman in the basement. Shortly later he gets deathly ill. Not all of a sudden, but gradually. He loses his weight he regained, and starts to die. They put him in Liesel’s bed and for weeks he does not wake. Liesel brings him gifts and reads to him every day begging him to stay with them. The family doesn’t know what they’d do if he died. Death comes for Max many times but he fights it off each time. He does on day wake, and Rosa visits Liesel in school, yelling at her about a brush to cover him having woken because she had to let Liesel know. Max gets better and things almost return to normal but the air raids grow closer and basements are checked to see if they could be air raid shelters. Liesel, one day while at soccer, learns this and purposely gets hurt so that she could get the news to her father without making a scene. Max is forced to hide, and their basement is checked with no difficulty. Max, however, continues to apologize for existing and for bothering them by hiding him. Their house was not deemed suitable as an air raid shelter.
Part 7: The air raids began. The first one was a mistake, where nothing happened. The second times the raid missed their street. Liesel read her book to people to calm them, and later would take to reading for another woman for rations. Liesel gets more books from the Mayor’s wife, and she thinks of Max hoping he will not die alone. One day the jews of a labor camp are paraded through town and despite his better judgement Hans tries to feed one. He is beaten for it and he realizes his mistake immediately. Max has to leave, and so he does, and instead of waiting for the clear to come back, he disappears leaving only a note behind. When the Gestapo finally do come to the street three weeks later, its for Rudy.
Part 8: The Gestapo came for Rudy, and his parents said no. He was going to be drafted for an elite group of citizens, after having been examined at school in a particularly degrading way. Because of the no, his father was sent to the war as was Hans. Alex, Rudy’s father, was sent to tailor uniforms to mend them or turn them into something useable while Hans was sent to the LSE. The LSE is a special unit for during raids, who stay above ground and put out fires, and help people from the rubble, etc. After Hans and Alex left, Rudy and Liesel walk through town with Rudy wanting to kill Hitler. Liesel finds Rosa alone with the accordion, thinking of Hans. Rudy and Liesel later end up feeding the Jews bread, when they really don’t have bread to spare, while in the woods. On Christmas, Liesel gets aa present from Max, that he left behind for her with Rosa. It has the story The Word Shaker — a story of friendship working towards defeating the words of hate — and Liesel thinks of Max. Liesel and Rosa are with Rudy’s family fro Christmas, and Liesel does not kiss Rudy as a gift, even though she probably planned to.
Part 9: Liesel gets cookies from the Mayor’s wife and learns that the library is the Mayor’s wife’s library not the Mayor’s. Hans gets into a spat with another soldier, and that soldier ends up taking his seat in the truck a few weeks later. After a burst tire and the flipping of the car, that soldier died and hans broke his leg. This meant he could go home. The woman that Liesel reads for, her son came back home but her second son died. Rosa’s son is revealed to be in Russia, fighting. Rudy finds out Hans is coming home and wants to steal some more, saying what Lisel does for the books isn’t really stealing. He has a tool box of supplies including a teddy bear. He doesn’t go through with it and later exchanges the supplies for stealing with their most prized possessions for raids, keeping the teddy bear. An air raid comes and Liesel reads through 54 pages. When they emerge Rudy and Liesel spot a fighter plane. They rush over and see a man dying. Rudy gives the man the teddy bear and he dies. This is the second time death sees Liesel. Hans comes home.
Part 10: The part opens with the end. Himmel street is bombed, as the air raid was off target. The sirens came too late and everyone, but Liesel who was reading her own story in the basement, was killed. The book jumps back to 98 days after Hans got home. Everything was “normal” for 97, but on 98, the work camp started to use their workers, the Jewish people, as a clean up crew for the city where the soldiers refused to clean. Liesel looked for Max and did not see him. The Jews came twice a week, and Michael Holtzapfel, the son of the woman that Liesel reads for, killed himself. “He killed himself for wanting to live.” (503). Hans is the one who has to give the news to the mother and she is distraught, however Liesel had seen the change but hadn’t known what to do to help him. Liesel reads to the funeral. Max had been captured months ago half way to Stuttgart, and was transferred to the work camp near Munich. On the day he and the new workers were paraded through town, he found Liesel and she found him. She makes her way through the German crowd into the procession to him. He is weak but he helps her when she trips. She is forced out of the crowd but she goes back in again. She goes to Max and confirms it is him. He is whipped for not walking, and she is whipped as well. Rudy and Tommy go to save her from the street as the procession moves on, and when she is up, she runs towards them again. She calls to Max, and Rudy protects her from the soldier’s beating. Rudy gets Rosa some time later as Liesel waits for Hans. Hans finds out when he gets home and turns sour. Liesel stays at home for three days and then tells Rudy the truth and shows him the book that Maax had written for her, The Word Shaker. She wants to kiss him then but does not. Rudy sees from to book and sees himself in it, and she tells him that she told Max about him.
Trying to cheer herself up, Liesel goes to steal another book, but instead destroys one and tells the Mayor’s wife she’ll never return. The Mayor’s wife goes to Liesel 3 days later with a blank journal and tells her to write for herself. Liesel begins to do so, in the basement on her own. Her book was made in ten parts, often of little stories of things that built the larger one. October 7th the bombs fall on Himmel street. Everyone dies but Liesel who was in her basement. Death sees them save Liesel.
Liesel immediately goes into shock and tries to run. The LSE tries to calm her down. She gets the family accordion right when she sees the first body. She follows the men towards the other bodies and sees Rudy first. She begs him to wake up and tells him that she loves him. She sobs for him and kissed him, twice. She then found Hans and Rosa, her Papa and Mama. She talks to her mama, and tells her mother she was beautiful but she could not look at her papa. She cried for a long time before turning to him. He was her home and then he was gone. She gives the accordion to her father and cries until she is taken away. The book she wrote is discarded after being stepped on so many times. Death collects it.
Epilogue: Liesel died when she was very old in Sydney. In her final visions she saw all her life including before and after the destruction of Himmel street. Liesel kept Hans’ accordion and had no where to go as the only survivor. The Mayor and the Mayor’s wife come to collect her. She did not wash even for the funeral. There were two funerals for Rudy’s family, the first and the second for when his father returned. Liesel told Alex that she kissed Rudy when he found her when he learned she had lived. After the war ended, Alex reopened his shop and Liesel began to help him. They tried to find Max but were denied. In October of 1945 Max found Liesel. With Death, Liesel finally gets back the book she wrote.
What I Liked:
Liesel Meminger, The Book Thief; As a child living in the propaganda filled Nazi Germany, it is always interesting to see how or how not those characters of the world reacted. Liesel, grows so much in this book, learns so much from being kind and so much about words. She learns to read and later what words can do. A world without them, a world with them, and a world in which they are used. The child comes into her own in a way, and is forever changed by what she went through, but her racing towards Max when she saw him again and again shows her character for what it is. She cares, and she cares a lot. And she also loves words, and she knows how to use them. Liesel was an excellent lead character for this story, because the story of The Book Thief, a girl who took and gave words, is a very endearing one.
Rudy; Now listen, the fact that this boy with hair the color of lemons loved Jesse Owens already gets my love. Additionally the fact that he did stand up for Liesel and Tommy (who is a boy who had a twitching condition due to a sickness from youth), is also great. Was he perfect? No. Was he a kid living in Nazi Germany, doing as he was told? Yes. Did he like it? No. He was a kid, a kid who wanted to be like Jesse Owens and run and kiss the girl he liked and was good in school. Rudy was an anchor for reality for Liesel, as well as the youthful innocence that she wanted. Rudy was the innocence of the story, and the desire to do good and be good but still while being an actual child. And then he died and that innocence was completely taken from Liesel. I adored him, for the full character he was, and for what he represented for Liesel.
Max Vandenburg; Now I loved Rudy and Liesel, but I loved Max’s characterization so much more. He was so very strong and so very weak all at once. His depression, and hope wove themselves so intricately through him. He was a story teller and a fighter, and both of those things saved him. Because he was a fighter, he kept going when Death came to take him. Because he was a story teller, he was able to give The Word Shaker/The Book Thief the words she needed to keep going, to understand that her words had weight. Those same very words that kept him going and kept him fighting, and later raced to keep him as he was marched to a camp. Max was everything and nothing all at once. He was real, and he was everyone but to the reader and to Liesel, he was everything.
Hans; He was a deeply good character who disagreed with Nazi Germany propaganda thoroughly, but had to deal with it to survive. I think this character in specific is one of importance, because there are always those who fight, and those who agree, but to see those who agree because they have to, is an important fact. Hans knew he was siding with the oppressor. He knew that by not fighting that he was doing so, but he had to for his family. Did it justify it? No. He knew that. He also opened his house to Max without a question, and protected Max as best he could. He, however, did have a flaw and that was for helping those who needed help, even at the risk of himself, because he could be so focused on the moment. He painted the shop doors to erase the slurs, and that nearly cost him everything and he knew it. He fed Jewish laborers bread even with Max in his basement because he couldn’t stop himself. If someone was truly, truly good but their goodness was battered, bruised, and nearly destroyed, it was Hans. Hans was Liesel’s home, and he was a man who would have fought to the death for others, if he had no one he’d leave behind who needed him more.
Rosa; She’s a richly complicated character who comes off as hard, but is so filled with love and compassion. Max, a jewish boy who was on the run, shows up in her kitchen and what does she do? Feed him. She feeds him, and starts a plan on where to keep him. Rosa may be hard but she cared and for someone as deeply good as Hans to marry her, I think this makes sense. They were a good balance for each other. Hans was idealistic and Rosa was practical but she was just as good. In her own way, of course.
Other characters; For the characters that we got and got to know, we were able to see their complexity. Each of them were real people in their own way and that added to the story immensely.
Writing Style; It is beautifully lush at times and blunt at other. Zusak is a master with sentences, able to weave them so carefully that he crafts a story with simple and complex sentences that is both easily accessible for readers and yet otherworldly. The narrator bleeds off the pages as an other, when weaving this story. It is the writing style, and death as the narrator, that make so much of this story. I would say that the characters and plot would make this a 4/5 for me, but its the writing that pushes it to a solid 5 for me. The way colors are described, and words are used, to the very flow of the story, all of it makes for such an easy yet powerful read. What I mean is this. I could read this book very quickly, and yet the words clung to me page by page, haunting me like a whisper and standing out like memories.
Death; Speaking of the narrator, having death is a very interesting stylistic choice. Going into this book I always knew that this book was narrated by death. I didn’t know much of it, but I knew that and the very last line. The way that death relates to his job, his existence, and the existence of humans is harrowing. He is disturbed by us, and who is to blame him. He takes solace in colors when we pass and the hand full of stories that he keeps. Yet we are monsters, and he, without exactly saying that, shows that so brilliantly. In the afterwards, Markus Zusak speaks on toying around with Liesel and a third person narrator instead of death and while I do think that the novel could stand on its own without death, the writing style and death as a combination create a far more complex and weighty story than I think the other two would have offered. With the otherness of death, the words and symbols, became that much more other and painful, yet light. Death was the only one who could tell this story properly.
The Book Thief; As a book, is what I mean. The novel is called The Book Thief, and the novel Liesel writes is too. Effectively this book is Death reciting her story. I really like this framing narrative, as well as the fact that it explains a lot of the book as well as the narrator. I also just like it when books are based on books within their pages.
The Power of Humanity; Now, I could go on and on about all the themes present in the book, specifically that of The Power of Words and the weight of them. This book is so much about how words can be used to help people and to hurt people, however that is the theme and message of Liesel’s story specifically. For The Book Thief, which is both Liesel and not, the theme that death is reflecting on is not how humans can harm humans. He already knows that. Death is reflecting on those small glimmers of light, those hand full of stories, those moments, that are hope, are light, are beauty in the darkness. This book is both filled with sorrow and darkness, it is daunting, distressing, and ultimately depressing when looking at the sorts of horrors humans can inflict upon each other. However this novel is also light and cheerful, beautiful as it is eerie, airy as it is heavy. It is the softest of whispers that keep a person going, believing, hoping, striving for a world that they believe can exist. It is the flicker of good that this book is focusing on. In a world of such disastrous existences, there is good. People can be good, even when they aren’t perfect. For Liesel, and Hans, and Rudy, were not perfect, but they still strove to be good. Even in such darkness, can humanity shine, and shine bright. That is what Death focused on in all the horror. That despite it all there were still those who strived for goodness. That the world is complicated, vast, and so very complex. Humans are not just evil, they are good too. That is their power, and that is what should be remembered. This is so perfectly captured on the last page, 550. “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 it’s words and stories so damning and so brilliant.” Humans are complex, and in our complexity is our power, both good and bad. We determine what we become.
What I Would Have Liked or Changed:
I’m not entirely sure. I guess I’d like to know a little of what happened to Max after, but this was not his story.
“People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darkness. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.” – pg 4
“I hang suspend until a septic truth bleeds toward clarity.” – pg 14
“I traveled the globe as always, handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity.” – pg 23
“The only thing worse than a boy who hates you. A boy who loves you.” – pg 52
“She walked over and did it again, this time much slower, with her hand facing forward, allowing the dough of her palm to feel the small hurdle of each book. It felt like magic, like beauty, as bright lines of light shone down from a chandelier. Several times, she almost pulled a title from its place but didn’t dare disturb them. They were too perfect.” – pg 135
“Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.” – pg 243
“One was a book thief. The other stole the sky.” – pg 381
“It kills me sometimes, how people die.” – pg 464
“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.” – pg 528
“I am haunted by humans.” – pg 550