World War II was a busy time for everybody. In Europe, as the fighting age forces were depleted, both the very young and the very old were pressed into the service. For those left behind at home, it was a time of desperation, as everything from food to metal to silk was diverted to supporting the war effort. There were a million stories written during this time, and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief tells a story that is fiction, but all too true.
The Book Thief tells a lot of stories. It tells is the story of Liesel Meminger. It begins on a train, with her mother and brother Werner. Her father's gone, and her mother is in danger as well. They're on their way to a foster home, where they will be safe. On Himmel Street, there will be soccer games, and foot races, and fistfights. There will be thin bean soup, and air raids, and the songs from an old accordion.
But only for one of them.
It tells the story of Hans Hubermann and his wife Rosa. They've already raised two children, one of whom despises them. Rosa is brash and loud, while Hans can be quiet, but both care much more than is safe in times like this. Their days are filled with hard work, and their nights are filled with worry, but there is still music and love to spare.
Taking in foster children isn't the first risk they've taken during these mad times, and it won't be their last.
There are other stories too. There's the story of Max, a young Jewish man whose father Hans knew back during the first War. There's the story of Rudy, who loves to run more than anything else. There's the story of the Ilsa Hermann, the Mayor's wife, whose life ended when she lost her son.
But mostly, it tells the story of Death. Death, who is overworked in these terrible times. Death, who takes special care of the souls of children that he has to collect. Death, who meets Liesel three times, and takes a special interest in her.
Death, who names Liesel The Book Thief.
Because the book is from Death's point of view, sometimes he spoils things. From the beginning, you know that things aren't going to go well for anyone involved. But rather than frustrating or disappointing the reader with these glimpses into the future, it brings a certain sense of dread to the story. The reader knows that these characters only have a little bit of time left, with so much left to do. And as the pages turn, the sinking feeling of dread only gets worse.
Markus Zusak has created characters that are amazingly sympathetic, even when they're not always likable. No one deserves what happens to them, but that's just the way life is. In a very crowded shelf of World War II books, The Book Thief deserves a place front and center.
Highs: The power of words, and of reading, comes up over and over in this book,and it's an important lesson to learn.
Lows: At first the narration from Death can be off-putting, but as the story goes on it makes more sense.
Verdict: There aren't very many World War II books that have something new to say, but this one is absolutely worth reading.
Further Reading: Between Shades of Grey, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children