- This book gives me hope.
- Reading about reading is my favorite kind of reading. Meta.
I am always extremely hesitant about reading or watching any WW2 related fictional stories/movies. As a German, I have so many mixed emotions about this time, that I often feel sad or offended by the way we are portrayed. The Book Thief had been on my reading list for a while because who doesn’t love a story about someone who loves to read. But I had been super hesitant to open the book for the aforementioned reasons. I really only got lured in by the prospect of a good cry, as adamantly attested to by two of my friends (see Sarah’s review). And I was just in one of those moods where a good, hearty wailing session was just what I needed. So, I began reading.
Death is the narrator. That in of itself is already a pretty magical start to a good novel. The fact that Death appears to be more human than many of the human characters in the book just crushes the competition in character development. Zusak really hit that out of the park. On top of that, making Death a narrator who is vulnerable, observant, honest, and not without flaws is just the right amount of sensitivity about an emotionally-laden subject like WW2.
Liesel is the teenage protagonist who lost both her parents and her brother and is subsequently placed in foster care with the Hubermann family outside of Munich. Her coming of age story is riddled with tragedy, set during harsh times, and full of heartache. Liesel finds solace in books without even being able to read at first, something that her foster dad remedies resulting in a wonderful and loving bond between the two. Liesel’s foster mom appears strict and cold but really is just your typical hard shell – soft center character. She makes sure that her little family remains a tight unit and survives this war. I particularly liked how gender roles were a bit reserved in the Hubermann family. Hans provided Liesel with emotional support creating a loving and safe environment while Rosa took charge keeping things running smoothly and in order. This becomes particularly evident when the Hubermanns hide a young Jewish man from the authorities. Rosa’s strong will and resourcefulness keeps the ship from sinking while Hans with his light heartedness makes an unbearable situation bearable and even enjoyable at times.
Rudy Steiner quickly becomes Liesel’s best friend. He really is the one that makes Liesel feel at home in her new world with a new family. Their dynamic covers all facets of friendship and transcends the fictional setting in this book. Zusak smartly depicts the inner split between being a child and becoming an adult in both these characters and their interactions showing the reader child-like naivete and grown-up perseverance. Rudy is Liesel’s enabler when it comes to stealing. At first they steal food (as food is heavily rationed at that point) from local farms and stores, but eventually Rudy helps Liesel steal books. Why does he do it? Partially because he has a pretty sizable crush on Liesel and partially because it is a way to take control of your life in a time when most things were out of your control.
Ilsa Hermann, the mayor’s wife, is a huge influence on Liesel’s development and her attachment to books. She allows Liesel to read in her library (which at first appeared to be her husband’s library – another twist on gender roles) nurturing Liesel’s desire for knowledge. While Ilsa’s gesture may seem to be one of weakness and despair (her son died in the war and she may be lonely), she quickly becomes one of the strongest female characters in the book. Ilsa works the system. She keeps up appearances as her husband’s position in the system requires while all along supporting Liesel’s non-conform behaviors. Ilsa is the one that really pushes for Liesel to begin writing. She also indirectly contributes to Liesel’s latest accomplishment which is reading to the villagers sitting in the bunker during air raids by providing Liesel with reading materials. All in all, Ilsa is one badass underrated female lead in the novel.
Max is the young Jew hiding in the Hubermann’s basement. He also has a fondness for books and words and he eventually writes Liesel a story (complete with illustrations). Liesel and Max develop a relationship that is built upon similar fears and experiences. Both lost their homes and families, both are desperate to survive in their new environment, both find hope in reading, and both are desperate to take control of their lives again. Zusak honestly used Max in the best way possible, humanizing the German enemy at that time and drawing the reader into the mind of the hunted not the hunter. We feel for him. We feel with him.
Of course this book ends in tragedy. It was after all WW2. Maybe I am bitter or maybe I am realistic but I expected people to die. So I didn’t cry when the village got bombed and many of the beloved characters died instantly. Instead I had hope. This may be the first book I read where Germans were portrayed in a much more realistic fashion. Not everyone sided with the Nazi regime. Germans suffered just like anyone else – their families were torn apart when boys and men were drafted, food was scarce, disease was prevalent, and a constant state of fear was only overshadowed by the strong desire to survive. Zusak in my opinion accomplished something that not many have done. He created a set of fictional characters that truly represent Germans you may have encountered at that time. As I said in my Goodreads review, his characters range from despicable to lovable, from stern to witty, from stubborn to selfless, and from narrow-minded to downright revolutionary. And that is what makes this novel so magical.