The book thief of the title is a young girl named Liesel Meminger. In Nazi Germany, Liesel and her brother are being taken by their mother to a foster home so they will have better living conditions. Her brother doesn’t survive the journey by train. This is one of the first losses that Liesel suffers in this powerful story — more are yet to come. This reality is underlined by the fact that the story is narrated by Death.
The Book Thief is not just another novel about the Holocaust or the plight of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, per se. It’s told from the point of view of a girl and her foster family who are very German — so one could say it’s a story about the other side of the coin. In a nutshell, it’s the story of the ordinary German citizens, both those who side with their “führer” and those who don’t necessarily care about or support him. They still must live with severe food shortages and constant fear — of being conscripted into the army, of their neighborhoods being bombed, of simply being at the center of conflict. And those who do anything to help the Jews have much more to fear.
Even so, the novel is so multilayered that it’s about so many things — about a girl who finds some power in words, in books. She owns nothing but steals a few books over the course of a few years and ends up writing her own. She connects with her new parents and with her neighbors. She finds a friend in a Jewish man her parents hide in their basement. She misses her mother and her dead brother. She yearns, she dreams, she has nightmares. All are entwined.
Markus Zusak makes his characters so vivid, so three-dimensional, that even Death seems very alive. His writing is full of original metaphors that are often almost concrete. The narrative is poetic, lyrical, and breathtakingly beautiful. I was in awe, page after page, of the style that can somehow combine subtlety and nuance with pack-a-punch emotion. And it’s never overdone. The emotion he elicits from the reader is genuine and never cheaply bought. The Book Thief is one of the most powerful, poignant, beautiful novels I’ve read in some time.
Rated: Moderate. Adult readers might be a little shocked at just how much language this book contains. It doesn’t have any “strong” language, but it is liberally dosed with “moderate” language. Some of it is in German, but there’s still quite a bit of English-language cursing. Parents might want to read The Book Thief first (I’d highly recommend you do, for your own benefit, anyway) to best judge how it would suit their teen or preteen readers.