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Cannonball Read #41: The Book Thief

04/26/2010

The Book Thief is wonderful. Let me just get that right out there. The language, the story, the creativity, and the characters are outstanding. You should drop everything and go get this book RIGHT NOW.

Oddly enough, The Book Thief was in the Young Adult section of my library. It is not a slim volume, rounding out at 550 pages, so I don’t know what qualifies it as such, unless it was the few illustrations, or the fact that the protagonist is a young girl. This is a book that should be read by adults as well as teens. Seriously – GO GET THIS BOOK RIGHT NOW – or maybe after you read my review…

The Book Thief takes place in a small town in Germany during WWII. Narrated by Death, the novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young foster girl. She and her brother were to have been placed together, but her younger brother unfortunately dies before they get to their destination. And this is the first time Death meets up with Liesel, the book thief. Death will see Liesel twice more.

As a narrator, Death can observe the oddities of human behavior pretty objectively. None of us makes sense to Death. Throughout each chapter are bold headings where Death just tells us like it is, or what is going to happen. Take this moment when we are learning about the first book that Liesel steals, The Grave Diggers Handbook, from when her brother was buried. I’ll do my best to show you here:

The point is, it really didn’t matter what that book was about. It was what it meant that was more important.

* * * THE BOOK’S MEANING * * *

1. The last time she saw her brother.

2. The last time she saw her mother.

You’d think that this would be distracting, to have such obvious points basically thrown into your face while reading, but it’s not. These points are driven home succinctly. Some of these headings by Death are predictions or explanations, and others reactions to events as they unfold, but they ring of truth.

Liesel cannot read the book she stole when her brother was being buried, but Hans Hubermann, her foster father, teaches her to read during the “midnight sessions”, when Liesel awakes with nightmares. Hans is a richly developed character. An accordion player and house painter, Hans is thoughtful and kind. He is the perfect foil for his foul-mouthed wife Rosa. But Rosa herself is a well-drawn  character – not just a shrewish harpy who Hans and Liesel despise. Though Rosa is a yeller of obscenities, she is a loving mother and wife.

Other characters in the novel include Rudy, Liesel’s best friend who once pulled off “The Jesse Owens Incident” where he put on blackface and raced around the local track. This was in tribute of Owens’ olympic wins, though, not in caricature.  Rudy and Liesel become friends after she deflects one of his soccer goals, and he slams her in the face with a snowball. The two of them explore the town and countryside and go through many trials together.

Another critical character in The Book Thief is Max Vandenburg, a Jew.

There was a young man standing in the kitchen. The key in his hand felt like it was rusting into his palm. He didn’t speak anything like hello, or please help, or any other such expected sentence. He asked two questions.

* * * QUESTION ONE * * *
“Hans Hubermann?”

* * * QUESTION TWO * * *
“Do you still play the accordion?”

As he looked uncomfortably at the human shape before him, the young man’s voice was scraped out and handed across the dark like it was all that remained of him.

Papa, alert and appalled, stepped closer.

To the kitchen, he whispered, “Of course I do.”

It all dated back many years to World War I.

Hans had been friends with Max’s father, Erik, back in WWI, and it was Erik’saccordion that Hans played now. Erik saved Hans’ life, so of course Hans would help Max, and Rosa would help too.

Curiosity got the better of [Liesel] then, as she imagined a tirade thrown down from the wrath of Rosa… After ten minutes of excruciating discipline, Liesel made her way to the corridor, and what she saw truly amazed her, because Rosa Hubermann was at Max Vandenburg’s shoulder, watching him gulp down her infamous pea soup. Candlelight was standing at the table. It did not waver.

Mama was grave.
Her plump figure glowed with worry.
Somehow, though, there was also a look of triumph on her face, and it was not the triumph of having saved another human being from persecution. It was something more along the lines of, See? At least he’s not complaining. She looked from the soup to the Jew to the soup.
When she spoke again, she asked only if he wanted more.

The fact that Max would go on to vomit up her soup did not quell Rosa’s intent to help at all.

What happens to Liesel, Max, Rudy, Rosa, and everyone in the small town outside Munich makes for a complex story full of love and loss.  Author, Markus Zusak writes beautifully about the most extraordinary and terrible events. I could go on and on and quote multiple passages, but that would take too long for this review. All I can do is say, again, you must read this book.

2 comments

  1. It’s been a while since I read this, but I agree, people should read it! It’s so beautiful, amazingly written, and a powerful story. I definitely want to read more by Zusak.


  2. I am intrigued. I might have to check this out.



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