The Book Thief by Markus Zusak scared me. For months, I walked past it in the bookstore. I was aware that it was a bestseller, getting wonderful reviews, receiving awards, and yet, I couldn’t bring myself to buy it. Every time I did pick it up to have a peek, I thought: bleh. A young adult book about Nazi Germany that is focused on death and book-burnings. How incredibly depressing.
Nine-year-old (soon to be ten) Liesel Meminger experiences the death of her younger brother while on the way to Munich, where they (now only she) would be handed over to foster parents. At his grave, she steals her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, and it is with this book she learns to read. Eventually the joy she gets from reading turns her into a book thief. Her progress is narrated by ever-watchful Death.
The story unfolds in Nazi Germany, and so the reader experiences all the misery, fear, and brutality of living under the Nazi regime, but filtered somewhat through the resilient eyes of a child. Liesel is not naive so much as she is unbeatable. She receives a great deal of love and support from her foster parents, as different as they are in their ways of expressing it. She forms strong friendships. And a good part of her inner strength comes from her love of books. Even Death cannot but help root for Liesel.
This is a remarkable book. After returning it to my friend, I bought a copy for my family. I got my husband to read it next. It’s hard to impress him with fiction; he’s mainly a nonfiction guy. But he agreed that this one was worth reading. The next step is to convince my kids that a WWII book "about death" that both their parents are pushing is something they should read.