Wow! This book is really heavy. I don’t mean in a literal sense (although it is 550 pages in softcover.) I mean, Death is the narrator. Yes, Death, the Big D, the Grim Reaper. That kind of heavy.
Although, as imagined by author Marcus Zusak, Death is unexpectedly emotional (“He does something to me …. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.”); he hates his job (“The trouble is, who could replace me?”); he has a dark sense of humor ( ” I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a black cloak when it’s cold. I don’t have those skull like features you humans are so keen on pinning on me …”) and, like most of us,he wants to be liked for himself (“I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable.” Just don’t ask him to be nice or “comforting” .)
Despite the dark subject matter I kept on reading because the novel shows the hardship and horrors the average German family experienced during WWII. Specifically it shows the devastating effects of war as seen through the eyes of a remarkable young girl who is almost ten at the start of the narrative and just about fourteen when the bulk of the story ends.
Her name is Liesel Meminger, her best friend is about her age, his name is Rudy Steiner, and her stepparents, Hans and Rosa Huberman, are hiding a young Jewish man, Max Vanderburg, in their basement (a capital crime in Nazi Germany). They all live on Himmel Street (“himmel” in German, ironically, means heaven) in the small town of Molking.
I‘ll be honest with you. I grew up watching WWII movies in which the American army always won and the only Germans were cartoonish Nazi villains. It took a novel like The Book Thief to make me realize that the average smalltown German family suffered as much during the war as those families living in countries which aligned themselves with the Allied cause. Folks like the Hubermans and the Steiners didn’t subscribe to (or, perhaps, fully understand) Hitler’s plans for world domination but in the novel they pay the same price as those that do. And, of course, no one suffered more in Nazi Germany than those of Jewish ancestry.
The harrowing descriptions of hunkering down in bomb shelters, the after effects of Allied shelling and the march of ragged Jews on their way to Dachau are so vivid I expected to see the face of a grizzled survivor on the back cover where the face of the author is usually posted (along with some brief biographical notes.) Instead I saw the smiling face of a young fellow “who lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife and children.” Mr. Zusak obviously did a lot of independent research but he is also quoted (on the back cover) as explaining “when his parents told stories about their childhoods in Germany and Austria during WWII, it was like a piece of Europe entered our house. I couldn’t possibly know at the time how important those stories would be …..” (The edition of the novel I have contains an interview with the author. However, I haven’t read it yet since I didn’t want to let Mr. Zusak’s impressions of what he wrote influence the impressions of what I read and wrote about in this post. ) The characters are so well defined and the author has a talent for creating memorable images. Liesel and the rest of her family never behave out of character. In fact, the book flows along with the rhythm of real life or as real as the characters can live their lives under the circumstances.