Sunday, November 11, 2012

Book Review: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (2007, Alfred A. Knopf)

Recommended for ages 13+

Would you be surprised to learn that Death is as unsettled by humans as we are by Death?
Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief is narrated by Death and follows young Liesel Meminger as she moves in with a foster family after her mother, a Communist sympathizer, goes on the run from the Nazis. Liesel’s younger brother dies on the trip, and she takes a book, The Grave Digger’s Apprentice, drops in the snow. Although unable to read, Liesel keeps the book.
The story deals with the day-to-day lives and struggles of the Hubermann/Meminger family and their neighbors during the Nazi regime. Hans, a house painter, is a gentle man who teaches Liesel to read and write and showing her affection. A Nazi party outsider, he finds work harder to come by and has earned the disgust of his older son, a staunch Nazi sympathizer. A World War I veteran, he keeps a promise to a Jewish soldier who saved his life during the war by hiding his son, Max, in his basement for two years. Rosa, a crude, verbally and sometimes physically abusive woman, is a laundress who sends Liesel to collect laundry as a way to garner pity from her customers. Liesel befriends a neighborhood boy, Rudy, and the two become neighborhood thieves. This helps feed Liesel’s growing addiction to books.
The Book Thief is a book with many layers, many stories, under one cover. Narrated by Death, the reader has a bird’s eye view of all the players, but learns a bit about the Narrator himself. He is not portrayed as a cold, cruel being but is objective, doing what he must and taking no pleasure in it. He is sympathetic, carrying children and concentration camp victims as gently as he can when he comes for them. He takes soldiers in his hands, but he understands innocence and slaughter. His confession to Liesel is the most revealing thing about Death and about humanity that the reader can take away from this book.
The narrative can be dense and the subject matter is not light, but the author’s gift for description is undeniable – the reader can smell the burning city of Molching; can feel Max’s hunger and pain as he struggles to stay alive, and will ache with Liesel’s grief.
The Book Thief is a critically acclaimed book that has received numerous honors, including Horn Book Fanfare (2006); Kirkus Reviews Editor Choice Award (2006); School Library Journal Best Book of the Year (2006); Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year (2006); Booklist Children Editors’ Choice (2006); American Library Association (ALA) Best Books for Young Adults (2007); Michael L. Printz Honor Book (2007); and Book Sense Book of the Year (2007).
Australian author Markus Zusak’s Random House webpage offers links to excerpts from both The Book Thief and  I Am The Messenger; readers can also find discussion questions and download a reading guide on The Book Thief, and a discussion board allows readers to discuss Zusak’s books together in a moderated forum.

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