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"The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak, an Australian novelist

Updated on November 23, 2015
Liesel, entering the forbidden library of the burgermeister (mayor), to steal yet another book.
Liesel, entering the forbidden library of the burgermeister (mayor), to steal yet another book. | Source
Markus Zusak on the set of the filming of his novel, "The Book Thief."
Markus Zusak on the set of the filming of his novel, "The Book Thief." | Source

Novels by Markus Zusak

The Underdog 1999

Fighting Ruben Wolfe 2000

When Dogs Cry 2001

The Messenger 2002

The Book Thief 2005

The latest book I have read is the haunting and poignant story of The Book Thief, written by a young Austrialian writer, Markus Zusak. And, yes, it is also the film that is out right now and, of course, I have seen the film.

While the film is good, the book is much better. Isn't that always the case? So much more can be said and portrayed by words and that is the entire point of the novel. Words, stories, and literature are an important way we as humans connect with one another. They create an everlasting bond that is difficult to break. We reveal ourselves as human to others through words and, again, I cannot express that thought better than Zusak does through this lovely, sad, heartbreaking, but life affirming story.

This fictional novel takes place in a small German town outside of Munich, Germany during the years before and during WWII. It is the story of nine year old Liesel Meminger, given up by her mother to foster parents because she cannot care for her any longer.

It is a beautiful story of the relationships that Liesel forges in her new foster home and neighborhood on Himmel Street. (Heaven Street) Liesel learns and matures into a lovely young adolescent as she wholly lives life as we watch her grow up from the age of nine to thirteen.

And, we see her daily struggles in forging those relationships while dealing with Nazi Germany and all the horrors and restrictions that come with it as the result of the war.

This is a tender young adult novel and film that shows the beauty, kindnesses and caring for one another that comes about in the most horrendous time of the Holocaust. And, yes, Liesel is a book thief, but readers cheer her on as she strives to work against censorship and learns to read, flourish and thrive as a reader.

This is definitely a novel that should be picked up as part of the curriculum of WWII and the Holocaust in schools around the world. It gives a wonderful yet haunting portrayal of that horrific time in history. I cannot think of a better novel for eighth graders to read as it also includes a touching love story between Liesel and her friend, Rudy, the boy next door.

Papa comforts Liesel after a nightmare and discovers Liesel's book and that she cannot read.
Papa comforts Liesel after a nightmare and discovers Liesel's book and that she cannot read. | Source
Liesel and her best friend, Rudy Steiner.
Liesel and her best friend, Rudy Steiner. | Source
The book burning ceremony during Nazi rule in Germany.
The book burning ceremony during Nazi rule in Germany. | Source
from "The Book Thief"
from "The Book Thief" | Source
Rudy to Liesel in "The Book Thief"
Rudy to Liesel in "The Book Thief" | Source

The novel

What is different and unusual about this novel is that the narrator is Death. While you might think that is awfully morbid, it is not. Death is surprisingly humorous and witty - definitely not the Grim Reaper. Death is sympathetic and empathetic to the souls he must collect. He even jokes he is much too busy and over worked at this time because the the war and the Holocaust has him collecting more souls than usual.

Death is tender and loving towards the souls he collects in the most horrific of circumstances. But, he is delighted that although he is able to see Liesel from time to time in his work, he knows he will not be collecting her soul. That also is comforting to the reader to know this.

Death continues to comment throughout the novel on the thoughts, morals and actions of humanity. He does not have control over life and death, he just collects the souls for God and he even speaks too God saying, "I don't understand," and then answer's himself with, "But, it's not your job to."

The novel begins with Death introducing himself to us:

First the colors. Then the humans. That's usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. HERE IS A SMALL FACT. . . You are going to die.

And, then begins the story of Liesel Meminger and her brother and mother on the way to their new foster home. Tragically, her sick brother dies on the train and they stop to bury him along the way in a small funeral. This is the first place that Liesel "steals" a book. She picks it up off the snowy ground next to her brother's grave.

Then Liesel continues on alone with the social worker to the home of the Hubermann's on Himmel Street in the town of Molching, Germany outside of Munich, Germany.

Liesel's new parents are Hans and Rosa Hubermann whose two children are now grown and no longer live at home. Papa is loving and caring toward's Liesel as he coaxes her out the the car and to come inside the house. He is quiet, reserved and a bit hen-pecked by his wife Rosa. He is an unemployed painter who plays the accordion.

Mama is stern and no-nonsense. She has taken in a foster child for the money she will be paid to do so. She calls everyone pig-headed, even sweet Liesel, and takes in laundry to wash and iron to make some money as her saukerl (pig-headed) husband is out of work. She runs the daily household and makes the rules.

Himmel Street is home to good, but poor Germans who eek out a living during the war. And there are playmates for Liesel, especially Rudy next door, who falls in love at first sight when he sees Liesel even though he is only nine years old.

In the meantime, Liesel makes friends with the neighborhood children and becomes best friends with Rudy, who adores her. They play soccer daily and Liesel becomes quite good at the sport. Rudy is always asking Liesel for a kiss, but she refuses, thinking it is a ridiculous request.

One evening, when Liesel has gone to bed, Papa discovers the book she has stolen from her brother's funeral, a how to book on grave digging, that she has hidden under the mattresses. He also discovers she cannot read and so he embarks on a mission to teach her to read as she wants this very much.

Because of the death and funeral of her brother, Liesel is prone to nightmares and it is Papa who comes to console and comfort her in the middle of the night. To calm her, he reads to her, and the next day he takes her to the basement where he has painted the alphabet on the basement wall and Liesel writes on the wall in chalk all the words she learns as she learns to read.

Liesel, as a German child must join Hitler's Youth Organization, and she wears the uniform and accepts the Nazi propaganda along with the other children without question until the night of the book burning.

All the residents of Mochling must attend the book burning ceremony where the mayor makes a speech denouncing all the undesirables in German society. Liesel is going along with the program as the mayor denounces the Jews and then the Communists. Here, Liesel stops singing, realizing her parents were Communists and are not liked or wanted by Hitler.

Now the world has changed for Liesel. Liesel now understands the importance of words, books and reading and so she embarks on a quest for as many books as she can find. She "steals" a book that has not been completely destroyed from under the burnt pile and hides the book under her clothing.

Papa finally finds her and as they are walking home, he realizes Liesel is hiding something. When he finds out it is a book from the book burning ceremony, he is very upset with Liesel, but when she explains how important books are to her he relents and allows here to keep the book. They end up reading it together.

Unbeknown to Liesel, Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's wife has seen her take the book from the burning pile that night. When Liesel delivers their laundry that Mama has washed and ironed, Ilsa invites Liesel into her library. Liesel is awed. She has never seen a room filled just with books before. Ilsa encourages her to pick a book and read it and Liesel is in heaven.

Each time Liesel returns the laundry to the Hermann house, Ilsa invites Liesel into the library and Liesel eventually learns that Ilsa has lost her son in the war on the Russian front Ilsa is distraught heartbroken, and depressed and Liesel tries to console her. Ilsa and her son used to read in the library and it does console Ilsa to have Liesel read there now.

Eventually, the war has caused so much ruin to the German economy in their town that the Hermann's cannot afford to have Mama Hubermann continue to do their laundry and so Liesel cannot return to Ilsa's library to read.

Hence, Liesel begins to "steal" books from Ilsa's library. Interestingly, Ilsa leaves the library window unlocked and open making it easy for Liesel to enter and fetch another book. Rudy always accompanies Liesel on these book stealing jaunts and he is the one that nicknames Liesel "the book thief."

Of course, the children are starving during the war, and Rudy, the practical one, always suggests that Liesel steal some food from the kitchen, but she does not. She only takes one book before leaving the Hermann house each time she enters.

Max Vandenburg, the young Jewish man who hides out in the Hubermann's basement.
Max Vandenburg, the young Jewish man who hides out in the Hubermann's basement. | Source
Liesel reads to Max in the basement.
Liesel reads to Max in the basement. | Source
Liesel and Rosa accompany Hans to the train where he will leave for German army duty in Essen.
Liesel and Rosa accompany Hans to the train where he will leave for German army duty in Essen. | Source
Rudy, Liesel and Rosa wait out the night in the bomb  shelter where Liesel tells a story to entertain and comfort the residents.
Rudy, Liesel and Rosa wait out the night in the bomb shelter where Liesel tells a story to entertain and comfort the residents. | Source

The story continues

More conflict arises in the Hubermann home as they hide a Jewish friend, Max Vandenburg, in their basement during the war. Max's father had saved Hans Hubermann's life during WWI and taught him to play the accordion and so Hans feels obligated to hide Max.

This is another important relationship that Liesel forms with Max. They bond because of their love of reading and Liesel observes Max writing. To seal their friendship, Max writes several stories for Liesel on the pages he has blotted out with white paint of Hitler's book, Mein Kampf.

When Max is sick, Liesel reads to him to keep him occupied. When he recovers, he is so glad for Liesel''s kindness, that he gives her the book and the stories he has written and encourages Liesel to write a journal. This becomes most important later in the story.

As the war escalates, the German soldiers march Jewish prisoners through Himmel Street on their way to Dachau concentration camp nearby Munich, Germany. The residents of Himmel Street line the street and watch the German soldiers cruelty and brutality towards the prisoners.

Hans Hubermann one day offers a piece of bread to a Jewish prisoner on his way to Dachau and is severely beaten by a German soldier for his kindness toward the Jewish prisoner. Now, Max must leave the Hubermann basement because they fear a Nazi Gestapo inspection of their house because of the incident. Max leaves in the middle of the night.

Liesel looks for Max each time Jewish prisoners are marched through Himmel Street and one day finally does see him. As her Papa had done, she offers Max a bit of bread and is beaten by one of the German soldiers until Mama comes to her rescue.

It is now 1943 and area bombings are starting. When the residents of Himmel Street are in the bomb shelter, Liesel, who has brought her books with her, reads to her neighbors and tells stories to calm everyone down and get their minds off their situation. Words, books and reading become an important way to heal the wounds and scars of war.

Eventually Himmel Street is bombed one night when everyone is sleeping and the sirens were not able to get off quickly enough for the residents to get to the bomb shelters. Liesel is the only one in the basement writing in her journal by candlelight. She is writing her life story as "the book thief" as Max has encouraged her to do. Liesel is the only one on the street to survive the bombing. It is words that have saved Liesel's life.

Mama and Papa have died and Liesel is devastated. And then, Liesel discovers Rudy has died. Liesel is inconsolable and she fills Rudy's lips with kisses -- what he had always wanted from her. Yes, Liesel had always loved Rudy back. Liesel is then taken in by Ilsa Hermann and the mayor and lives out the rest of the war with them.

In her grief and distress over the deaths of her most beloved foster parents and best friend, Liesel inadvertently leaves her journal at the bomb site. When Death arrives to collect the souls of the dead, he also picks up Liesel's journal and that is how he is able to narrate to us the story of "the book thief".

Liesel writes in her journal.
Liesel writes in her journal. | Source
from "The Book Thief"
from "The Book Thief" | Source
from "The Book Thief"
from "The Book Thief" | Source
from "The Book Thief"
from "The Book Thief" | Source
from "The Book Thief"
from "The Book Thief" | Source

Have you read the book or seen the movie?

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Analysis of the novel

I thought the use of Death as the narrator to be brilliant in this novel. Death weaves in and out of the novel, always there in the reader's consciousness to remind is that Death is the primary character in war.

Zusak creates Death as a person with a 'circular heartbeat' which makes him immortal, though he says he looks like and acts like a human person most of the time. He walks among us and he is not invincible. He is sick and tired of his job and he wants a vacation, but because of the war this is not possible. There is no one to replace him and he must collect those souls for God.

Some of the souls are heavy and some are light, like Hans Hubermann. And some are not to be collected until much, much later in life as with Liesel.

What I liked about the narrator Death is he skips ahead and warns us beforehand when a character will die, so when the death happens the reader is prepared and not shocked and completely devastated. Also, by making Death humorous and sympathetic, Zusak makes the readers sympathetic and empathetic to Death's job.

This novel has won numerous awards, and I can see why. With the opening words I was hooked on this novel and totally engaged and engrossed in this story.

Zusak makes clear that the power of words and stories is the most powerful way in which people connect with one another. As a short story writer, I have to agree. This is shown when Liesel and Hans connect and create a strong bond when he teaches her the alphabet and how to create words and read.

Max and Liesel bond strongly when she describes the weather to him as he hides in the basement. When he was ill, she reads to him and in return Max writes stories for Liesel. When he is forced to leave, Max gives Liesel the great gift of a journal which in turns saves her life in the Himmel Street bombing.

Zusak beileves words are the most powerful force there is. Hitler used words to mesmerize the people of Germany and take over the world. Words came first before the guns and conquering. Words are why Hitler had the book burnings all over Germany. He didn't want words other than his own to creep into the consciousness of the German people which could have destroyed what he was trying to do or build. He didn't want the German people to hear any other words than his own.

Liesel used words and books to create a refuge for herself and as a way of coping with the war. When she steals the books, Liesel is empowering herself and gaining control over her chaotic life during the war.

Max writes Liesel a story for her called "The Word Shaker." In the story Max creates, words are transformed into seeds which Hitler uses to create a forest that fills the German people with Nazi ideology.

In the story, Liesel grows her own tree and takes shelter in it. No one can chop it down, not even Hitler himself, though he tries. Max can also take shelter with her in her tree. Words and books will keep them safe and comfort them during the war.

Liesel's words that she leaves behind in her journal that Death picks up after the Himmel Street bombing is Death's connection and bonding with Liesel. And when Death narrates the story of "the book thief" Death creates the connection and bond the reader has with Liesel.

We learn that something we think as insubstantial as words can have life and death consequences on the world. Words could ultimately undermine the Nazi's and their cause. That is why the Nazi's burned books. They realized the importance and significance of words and ideas that can spread quickly.

The act of stealing appears repeatedly throughout this story. Liesel and Rudy also steal apples and potatoes from a nearby orchard. They steal the food because they are starving and Zusak does not portray these thefts as crimes.

Stealing was a way for Liesel and Rudy to take back control over a world that is out of control and beyond their control. And, Liesel develops from a powerless girl given to foster parents to a more mature, empowered young woman in her relationship with books and as "the book thief."

Liesel cannot read when the novel begins, but she gains power over books and her life as she learns to read and write. She comes to realize that 'knowledge is power.' As Liesel becomes more empowered, she becomes kinder and more understanding of those around her.

When the Hermanns have to end their laundry service with Rosa Hubermann, Liesel begins stealing books from the Hermann library to empower herself.

This maturation process and empowerment that Liesel feels is reflected in her friendship with Max. She uses books and words as a way to comfort Max in his illness and in his plight of hiding in the basement.

And she uses words, stories. and books to comfort and entertain her neighbors as she reads to them during bombing air raids.

The cruelty of war and also the kindnesses it produces also are important in this novel. Cruelty is portrayed by Franz Deutcher's treatment of Rudy especially at the Hitler Youth Organization. And, the cruel and criminal Viktor Chemmel bullies Rudy in the HImmel Street neighborhood..

But there are also small acts of kindness as when Ilsa Hermann invites Liesel into her library and purposely leaves the window open so "the book thief" can steal another book.

The Hubermann's hiding Max is a great act of kindness as they care for him physically and emotionally.

We see the cruelty of war as Hans' impulsive kindness to a Jewish man being paraded to Dachau, when he hands him some bread to ease his pain and suffering creates a paradox for himself. His act of kindness forces Max to leave the Hubermann basement.

And then there is the darkness. Darkness figures prominently in the novel and symbolizes the despair and ignorance that goes along with the war and the people who live on Himmel Street.

Death observes that people only observe the color at dawn and dusk, the end and beginning of darkness.

It is in the dark basement where Liesel learns to read and where Max is forced to live. By reading to Max. Liesel brings light into the darkness and his life. And, Liesel must fight the darkness to see the words they read and write.

And, Liesel is writing her story of "the book thief" by one candlelight in the basemenyt when the bombing occurs that kills everyone but her. Her story is the light that saves her and her story so that it can be told to us, the readers, by Death.

Liesel, the sole survivor of  the bombing of Himmel Street, clutches her journal.
Liesel, the sole survivor of the bombing of Himmel Street, clutches her journal. | Source

The film

I liked the film and thought it was a good one. But, I have to recommend at some point reading the book, either before or after seeing the film. I read the book first and then saw the film. The film leaves out important parts of the novel I would suppose to condense the story into a two hour movie.

All the parts about Max and his writing of his stories for Liesel are left out of the movie and these are important parts of the book and of the story. There are a few changes also from the novel to the movie.

I have to agree with what the critics have said about the movie that the pacing could be better. I agree as there are important parts that go too quickly and some parts that drag too much.

I have to say, this movie was perfectly cast. Geoffrey Rush as Papa is just spot on. He is so loving and kind to his 'lost Liesel' and eases her adjustment into life on Himmel Street, while at the same time teaching her so much through his compassion for her plight and all their plights.

Emily Watson as Mama is great. She calls everyone in her way 'pig-headed,' and loves Liesel deeply, but is not as able to show this as Papa does. There is one tender scene between Liesel and Mama that will delight you and you know she loves Liesel as much as Papa, but is so frustrated and in despair over the war, hiding Max, and running the house that she doesn't come across as very compassionate.

Sophie Nelisee, a French-Canadian actor, is just wonderful as Liesel. Her portrayal is spot on also. She is beautiful and haunting at the same time and has captured exactly the character of Liesel. Her portrayal pulled at my heartstrings. I have never seen her in anything else before, but I hope this performance gives her more work in films. I thought she was exquisite.

I highly recommend reading this extraordinary book but I also recommend seeing the film also. I was just a bit disappointed in the film because it had to leave what I considered important parts out of it. But whether you read or view this important story, I think you certainly will enjoy the story of The Book Thief.

The Book Thief - a preview

© 2013 Suzette Walker


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