Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Ratings for reviews will appear above the fold, while the review itself will appear below the fold to avoid spoilers for anyone that wants to go into it with a blank slate.

Jean-Paul’s rating: 5/5 stars

There is infinitely more beauty in sadness than in happiness.  Maybe it’s because sadness makes you appreciate the beauty all the more.

There is a Vonnegut-esqueness to Markus Zusak’s writing that made me want to hate this book at the beginning; the short sentence aside that makes Kurt Vonnegut Kurt Vonnegut.  But the more Zusak utilized it, the more I came to enjoy it.  Reading “The Book Thief” was like digging for gems in a bed of gold.  There were so many single sentences scattered throughout the book that made me stop and smile.  That a person can express so much in so few words is a testament to both Zusak’s ability.

“The Book Thief” is brutally sad.  It also happens to be brutally beautiful.  The book is narrated by Death which at first comes off as annoyingly cheesy until you get into Death’s personality.  If there’s one personality that can find the beauty of the worst of situations, it’s Death, right?  And how much worse can it be than living in Molching on the outskirts of Munich during World War II?  Much worse, it turns out, if you happen to be a Jew.

The story follows newly orphaned pre-teen Liesel Meminger.  Death takes an interest in her after coming to pick up her brother.  He will see her again.  And again.  And again.  So are the spoils of war.

Liesel steals her first book from the graveyard as they are burying her brother.  It is appropriately titled “The Gravedigger’s Handbook”.  Leave it to the Germans, they have a book describing how to do everything the best way possible.  The book is a treasure, a memory of a brother she both knew intimately and hardly got to know. If only she could read.

Liesel is left in the care of the Hubermann family of Himmel street; loving, patient, doting, and caring Hans and foul-mouthed, overbearing, violent, and exacting Rosa.  They are a poor family and growing poorer by the day as work dries up as a result of the war.  They get by, though, and Hans, a painter by trade, teaches Liesel to read the best way he knows how; by painting words on the walls of the basement.

Liesel spends her time on Himmel street the way any poor young kid would; playing soccer, going to school, and getting into trouble with her friend, the perpetually hungry Rudy Steiner.  Together they steal food and, of course, books.  The the food is to feed Rudy, the books are to feed Liesel’s hunger for words.

After being caught stealing a banned book from a bonfire by the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann, Liesel strikes up a strange relationship with the sad, trapped within herself woman.  Ilsa has a library!  A wall full of books!  A room dedicated to books!  She invites Liesel to read any time Liesel comes by to pick up or drop off the mayor’s clothing that Rosa cleans.  Very few words, but so much information is exchanged between the two.

Things are going well for Liesel until client after client starts firing Rosa to save money by cleaning their own clothes.  Then the mayor also fires Rosa so he can set an example of spendthriftness for his people.  Liesel lashes out at the only person available, Ilsa.  So much for reading books!

In the middle of all this, a man named Max Vandenberg shows up on the Hubermann’s doorstep.  Max is a Jew.  In Germany.  During World War II.  If there is a worse person or place to be in history, I can’t think of one.  Hans made a promise to Max’s dad back during his time in the army in World War I to always be there for his family.  Thus, Hans hides Max in his basement.  This has the strange effect of making Rosa a decent human being.  The entire family quickly falls in love with Max and his sad ways.

Due to the imminent threat of Allied bombings, Hans’ paint business picks up.  Lots of windows to paint black!  Many people can’t pay, but Hans gets by and there is more food for everyone including Max.  Until one day, a forced march of Jews comes through town on their way to Dachau.  Hans, in a moment of complete inconsiderateness and considerateness at the same time,  can not stand the sight so he feeds one of the Jews.  This leads to him being beaten by the guards.  Realizing that he’s made a big mistake, he rushes home to let Max know that he has to leave before the Nazis comes to arrest Hans and search his Jew-loving house.  Max leaves.  The Nazis never comes.  Hans let Max out to his likely doom for nothing.

What does eventually come is an enlistment order for Hans.  Off to war he goes along with Rudy’s father who refused a request to take Rudy to a special young Nazi program.

Liesel and Rudy now spend their time feeding marching Jews with stolen food and stealing books from Ilsa Hermann’s house.  Liesel is secretly on the lookout for Max who she misses even more acutely now that her dad is also gone.  She both wishes she would see him to know he were alive and wishing she would never see him again because that might mean he’s escaped.  One day, during such a march, she sees him.  She runs to him and the rain of lashes that fall down upon them both eventually separates them.  And off marches Max to Dachau.

Due to a fortunate injury, Hans comes home from war.  Rudy’s father left the war the harder way.  The reunion is happy and bittersweet.  The reunion is short lived.

One night, bombs fall on Himmel street before everyone can be warned to evacuate to bomb shelters.  Everyone dies.  Except Liesel.  She is take in by Ilsa and lives unhappily ever after with only her love of words to sustain her.

Thus ends “The Book Thief”.  I have no idea why I just wrote a Cliff’s Notes version of the book.  Perhaps it’s because I feel I can not otherwise do it justice.

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