The Book Thief - Book of the Month
by Markus Zusak
“Here is a small fact – you are going to die.” So pronounces Death, the narrator of this extraordinary novel.
The story is set against the backdrop of the Second World War. Liesel Meminger, the eponymous book thief, is a child enveloped in loss. Her parents are mysteriously “removed” by the Nazis and she and her small brother are sent to live with foster parents in the small town of Molching near Munich. The boy dies en route and it is at his funeral that Liesel steals her first book, THE GRAVEDIGGER’S HANDBOOK. Not that she can read it, but the book becomes a symbol for Liesel and when she finally reaches her foster family, reading and words become her escape, keeping her close to her dead brother.
Liesel’s foster parents, the Hubbermans, are a mismatched couple: Rosa is strict, foul-mouthed and “built like a wardrobe” whereas Hans is gentle, kind, a house painter and player of the accordion. The Hubbermans live in the ironically named Himmel (Heaven) Street - as Death quips, “Not that it was a living hell. But it sure as hell wasn’t heaven either”. Liesel finds relative security and comfort here with her adoptive family. She makes friends with the local children, in particular a boy named Rudy Steiner who becomes her co-conspirator and partner in crime.
But it’s her bond with a Jewish man, Max Vandenburg, that alters her life. Max is given refuge by the Hubbermans, spending day and night in their basement, the tedium relieved only by Liesel’s visits. He and Liesel both share what it is to lose one’s family and both are haunted by nightmares of that experience. They also discover a shared love of words and it’s Liesel’s descriptions of the world outside that are Max’s salvation. When Max arrived at the Hubbermans’ door he carried a copy of Hitler’s MEIN KAMPF (to make him look less Jewish) and over the weeks and months of his imprisonment he transforms this into a precious gift of words and pictures for Liesel. This, for me, was the most moving part of a very moving story.
Initially written for young adults, THE BOOK THIEF is a beautifully unbiased piece of storytelling about this most heinous of times, but it is also a testimony to the power of words, creating an impact that resonates long after the last page.
THE BOOK THIEF is the 2009 Brighton City Reads choice. See more at the City Reads website
Read our interview with Marcus Zusak.