What I’m Reading: The Book Thief

I know that The Book Thief by Markus Zusak isn’t a new book; it was first published in 2005 and went on to become a New York Times Bestseller and win numerous awards. I picked up this special anniversary edition from work a few years ago because I thought it would look nice on my bookcase. I had every intention to read it, but I just wasn’t sure when. Well, I finally got around to it and I must say, it is truly an incredible book.

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The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, an adopted girl in a small German town during World War II. While Liesel is the protagonist, she isn’t the narrator. The book is narrated by Death, and the voice that Zusak achieves for him is truly fascinating. It manages to convey a sense of weighty responsibility while also infusing the story with moments of levity. You would think that Death’s understanding of the inevitability of death would cast a pall over the book, but instead it offers a narration that is simultaneously personal and close to the characters and miles away from them. Death even revealed some late book plot points before they happened, so you can imagine my surprise when I found myself sobbing at the end of the book when they finally occurred. (A side note: I finished this book on a plane; I can’t imagine what the man sitting next to me thought was happening.)

I didn’t know anything about the plot of this book before I started, and I think that made my reading experience that much more powerful, so I’m not going to talk about it much here. I will say though that the strength of this novel is in the relationships between the characters. Whether it was a relationship between children, between adults or between a child and an adult, these relationships and the actions they were characterized by felt so raw and real. Most Holocaust-era historical fiction centers around the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and I felt that this novel did that, but in a different way than I had come into contact with in the past. While other novels have their characters literally running from Nazis, this book offered a glimpse of what it was like for those more on the fringes, those who generally only came into contact with the side effects of the war. Most of the action of the book as it related to the war could be described this way, and it effectively captured the way that Germans must have been lulled into complacency during this period. So when the war did rear its ugly head, in the form of an injured soldier returned home, a Nazi recruiter, or a Jew running for his life, it both forced and shocked the characters into confronting these people and themselves and making decisions that would color their futures forever—and it was in these moments that the strength of their spirit really came out.

On Amazon, this book is the #1 Bestseller in Children’s Holocaust Fiction Books. I knew that it was characterized as a young adult book, but I think that’s only because the protagonist is a child, and it did not color my ability or willingness to relate to Liesel as an adult. So if you haven’t read it, I wouldn’t let that hinder your doing so. I could probably talk about this book for thousands and thousands of words, but I’m not going to and instead say that this book is sensational and mightily deserving of the praise it has received over the years. And I’m very glad I finally picked it up.

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