The Book Thief
The Book Thief
Markus Zusak's novel The Book Thief tells the tale of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl living during World War II who finds her life increasingly tied to books—many of which, as the title suggests, are stolen. Seemingly abandoned by her parents and witness to her younger brother's death by illness, Liesel is sent to live with a foster family in a small town outside Munich. There, she begins a relationship with books that challenges and sustains her during the darkest moments of war—and, ultimately, even saves her life.
Zusak was already a successful children's book author before The Book Thief, with four previously published novels; one of these, I Am the Messenger (2003), was even chosen as Book of the Year by the Children's Book Council of Australia. However, The Book Thief was a special work for the author; the youngest child of German and Austrian parents who later settled in Australia, Zusak grew up hearing tales of wartime Germany. He wanted to show readers that not all Germans were hateful and brutal. As Zusak states in an interview featured in the Readers Guide of the paperback edition of the novel, “I wanted them to see people who were unwilling to fly the Nazi flag, and boys and girls who thought the Hitler Youth was boring and ridiculous.” The Book Thief quickly became one of the most popular works of young adult fiction of
2006, topping the New York Times Children's Bestseller List and enjoying significant readership among adults as well. The book earned Zusak his second Michael L. Printz Honor; more importantly, it sparked the imaginations of readers around the world with its resonant message about the power of words. As Zusak himself puts it:
I thought of Hitler destroying people with words, and now I had a girl who was stealing them back, as she read books with the young Jewish man in her basement and calmed people down in the bomb shelters. She writes her own story—and it's a beautiful story—through the ugliness of the world that surrounds her.
Markus Zusak was born in 1975 and raised in Sydney, Australia. He is the youngest child of a German mother and an Austrian father. Growing up, he heard many tales about life in Germany during World War II. Some of these events, such as the Allied bombing of Munich and the marching of Jews through towns to nearby concentration camps, would serve as key elements in The Book Thief.
Zusak's first published novel was The Underdog, published in Australia in 1999. The book concerns a teenager named Cameron Wolfe and his struggles to become a man in his working-class Australian neighborhood. Two more novels followed, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl, also about Cameron and the Wolfe clan. Getting the Girl (under its original title, When Dogs Cry) was selected as an Honor Book by the Children's Book Council of Australia. His follow-up, I Am the Messenger (2002; released in the U.S. in 2005), earned Zusak further acclaim. The novel won a Michael L. Printz Honor and was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Zusak's most successful work to date is The Book Thief, which has topped the bestseller lists in several countries and earned the author an additional Michael L. Printz Honor, as well as the Jewish National Book Award for young adult fiction. As of 2008, Zusak still lives in his native Sydney with his wife and daughter, where he occasionally works as an English teacher and continues to write.
Prologue: A Mountain Range of Rubble
The Book Thief begins with an introduction by its narrator, Death. He offers a brief explanation for his involvement in the story about to begin. As Death, he explains, he occupies himself by taking note of the color of the sky at the moment he takes the soul of a dying person. This is also, he points out, a way to keep from noticing the living—the survivors “who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise.” Sometimes, however, a survivor catches his eye during the course of his work; one of these is a girl he calls “the book thief,” whom he sees three times while taking the souls of others.
The first time he saw the girl he was outside a train in the snow, under a blinding white sky. The girl's young brother had suddenly died as the two journeyed by train with their mother. The second time was years later, when the girl appeared at the site of a crashed plane under a black sky; the pilot was not yet dead when she arrived. The third time was under a glowing red sky, among the ruins of a devastated city. The girl, standing dazed in the bombed-out remains of her former neighborhood, dropped the book she was holding. Death watched as workers piled the book onto a stack of garbage to be hauled away, and on an impulse he acted: “I climbed aboard and took it in my hand, not realizing that I would keep it and view it several thousand times over the years.” The story that follows is the tale of the book thief and her experiences between Death's first and third encounter with her.
Part One: The Grave Digger's Handbook
In January of 1939, the book thief—whose name is Liesel Meminger—is only nine years old. She and her brother are being taken by their mother to Munich, where they are to be taken in by foster parents with the hope of receiving a better life. Their father is absent, and though Liesel does not understand why, she draws a connection between him and the word “Communist,” which she hears in hushed adult conversations. Riding on the train toward Munich, Liesel wakes from a nap and notices that her brother Werner has died.
Liesel and her mother bury Werner at the next town. While at the cemetery, Liesel—who has trouble understanding the loss of her brother—stumbles upon a small black book that has been dropped in the snow. She takes it.
Outside Munich, in the small town of Molching, Liesel is left with a woman who drives her to her new home. Her foster parents are Rosa and Hans Hubermann, a middle-aged couple who live on Himmel Street in an impoverished section of town. Their own two children are grown and living away from home. Hans is a soft-spoken man whose eyes are “made of kindness, and silver,” while Rosa is a plump, abrasive woman who refers to most people as filthy pigs—in German, saukerl (for males) or saumensch (for females). Hans is a painter by trade, though he also loves playing the accordion and rolling his own cigarettes. Rosa washes laundry for some of the wealthier Molching families—including mayor Hermann and his wife—as a way of bringing in some much-needed money.
Liesel is enrolled in both school and the BDM, a Hitler Youth group for young girls. Though she has already taken a book—which she keeps under her mattress—Liesel cannot read or write when she begins school. She is also haunted nightly by nightmares about her brother's death. Both problems are dealt with by Hans, who sits with Liesel each night when she wakes in terror; eventually they begin late-night readings of the book she had taken from the cemetery, which she discovers is called The Grave Digger's Handbook. Hans begins teaching her to write on the only paper in the house: the backsides of sandpaper sheets he uses when painting. When the sandpaper runs out, they begin painting words on the walls of the basement.
Liesel makes a few friends at school, most notably Rudy Steiner, a boy known throughout the neighborhood for blackening himself with charcoal and impersonating Jesse Owens three years prior. She also has one notable enemy, however, at least for a time: Ludwig Schmeikl, a boy who takes pleasure in ridiculing Liesel's still-faltering skills at reading. Already upset and humiliated, Ludwig's words break Liesel's confidence, and she beats him up during recess.
Part Two: The Shoulder Shrug
By the close of 1939, Liesel has finished reading The Grave Digger's Handbook with Hans and has adjusted well to her new life in Molching. For Christmas, she receives two books from her foster father; she discovers that he traded away much of his treasured tobacco ration in order to buy them.
The following month, Liesel and her classmates are tasked with writing a letter. She chooses to write to her biological mother and sends it through the foster care agency, hoping that somehow the letter will find her mother and bring a response. She watches the mail each day for three months, even after foster care agents admit to not knowing the mother's location. She even mails off additional letters by taking a portion of Rosa's ever-dwindling laundry earnings in order to buy a stamp. She is discovered, and starts to receive a beating; when Rosa finds out the reason for the thievery, however, she apologizes. Liesel comes to the realization that “she would never see her mother again.”
In April of 1940, the entire town of Molching prepares to celebrate Hitler's birthday with a bonfire. The adult Hubermann children, Hans Junior and Trudy, also return home for the event. Hans Junior, a zealous member of the Nazi Party, butts heads with his more moderate father, who has yet to be accepted as a member of the party but does not seem to mind. Trudy works as a housemaid in Munich, and Liesel finds her quiet but pleasant. During an argument, Hans Junior calls his father a coward and storms out of the house. Death hints at his future fate: “Yes, the boy was gone, and I wish I could tell you that everything worked out for the younger Hans Hubermann, but it didn't.”
Liesel leaves the house to attend the bonfire as part of her Hitler Youth group. She is stunned when she discovers that the fuel for the bonfire is a mountain of books. She is further taken aback when the Nazi speaker rattles off a list of enemies to Germany—including “communists,” a word somehow connected to her father. She struggles to escape through the crowd and finds an unlikely ally among the press of people: Ludwig Schmeikl, the boy she had beaten up for teasing her. His ankle has been injured during the chaos, and she helps him to safety. The two apologize for their past behaviors to each other.
Later, Liesel meets her foster father by the smoking remains of the bonfire. She asks him if her mother was a communist, and if Hitler took her away. He answers honestly: “I think he might have, yes.” When she tells him that she hates Hitler, he slaps her and warns her never to say such a thing in public again. It is an uncharacteristic act for the normally gentle man, which drives home the importance of the message. While her foster father speaks with an acquaintance, Liesel watches as workers dampen the embers and shovel away the burned remains of the bonfire. Near the bottom of the heap, she sees three books that have escaped the flames. When no one is looking, she reaches in and pulls out the closest of the books. She shoves it into her jacket, though it is still hot and smoking. Only afterward does she realize that someone has seen her thievery—the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann.
Part Three: Mein Kampf
On the way home from the bonfire, Hans discovers Liesel's secret theft. Rather than becoming upset, it seems to spark an idea in him. He later walks to the local Nazi Party office and trades some money and cigarettes for a used copy of Hitler's autobiography, Mein Kampf.
Soon after, Liesel visits the mayor's house to drop off laundry for her mother. She is relieved when the mayor's wife makes no mention of the book-stealing incident. The next time she visits, Ilsa Hermann beckons Liesel inside. The woman shows the girl a wondrous sight: an entire room with each wall filled to the ceiling with books. Thereafter, every time she stops at the mayor's house for laundry delivery or pickup, she spends time reading books in the library while Ilsa Hermann looks on. Liesel discovers that the Hermanns had once had a son, but he died during World War I. Ilsa Hermann is certain that he froze to death, and in a sort of punishment to herself, always leaves the window to the library open—even in the dead of winter.
Hans sends the used copy of Mein Kampf to a Jew in hiding named Max Vandenburg, along with a key taped inside the cover. Hans knows that any other shipment might be suspect, but a copy of Mein Kampf is likely to pass unnoticed by an official searching through parcels; it would also divert suspicion from a Jew if he were to be seen reading the book in public. Max leaves his hiding place in Stuttgart and, using fake identification, boards a train headed toward Molching. He walks the last portion of the journey and arrives at the Hubermann household at night. He uses the key from the book to let himself in.
Part Four: The Standover Man
Hans Hubermann's connection to Max Vandenburg is revealed: Hans Hubermann fought during World War I with Max's father Erik. Indeed, Erik was the one who taught Hans how to play the accordion. One day, just before their company entered combat, the sergeant asked for a volunteer with good penmanship. Knowing that the volunteer would avoid combat and have the best chance at surviving the day, Erik recommended his friend Hans for the job. In doing so, he saved Hans's life and lost his own. Hans was later given the only possession of Erik's that was too big to send home to his family: his accordion. After the war, Hans visited Erik's widow in Stuttgart; to his surprise, he discovered that Erik had a son. Hans left the woman his name and address in Molching, and told her to contact him if she ever needed a favor such as painting her apartment—his only skill.
The root of Hans's uneasy relationship with the Nazi Party is also revealed: as a painter, he had become infamous for helping Jews whose homes and businesses had been painted over with slurs and insults. Also, although he had applied to be a member of the party in 1937, he made a clumsy and aborted attempt to withdraw his application after seeing some vandals throwing bricks through the window of a Jewish businessman's shop. Thereafter, he was regarded with suspicion.
Hans also reveals how Max came to their home. Hans was visited in June of 1939 by a man named Walter Kugler from Stuttgart. Walter was a longtime friend—and frequent fist-fighting opponent—of Max Vandenburg. Walter had been hiding Max for two years, but was fearful that he would be discovered. Walter found Hans thanks to the scrap of paper he had left with Max's mother twenty years before; seeing it as a way to repay his long-dead friend, Hans agreed to help Max.
Once in the Hubermann house, Max sleeps for three days straight. When Max wakes, Liesel's is the first face he sees. Hans explains the situation to Liesel, and makes it clear that the presence of Max must never be revealed to anyone. For everyone's safety, Hans fashions a small, secret living space under the basement stairs for Max; when winter arrives, however, Max is allowed upstairs at night to sleep near the fire. In February, when she turns twelve, Liesel receives a book titled The Mud Men.
Max, unable to give her anything, comes up with an idea: he removes some of the pages from the copy of Mein Kampf that Hans sent him, paints over the words, and writes his own story—featuring himself, Liesel, and crude illustrations—called “The StandoverMan.” She treasures it.
Part Five: The Whistler
Throughout the spring of 1941, Liesel continues her visits to Ilsa Hermann's library every time she stops by for laundry pickup. She becomes hooked on a book called The Whistler, about a murderer who whistled as he fled the scenes of his crimes. She also strengthens her bond with Max; she brings him discarded newspapers so he can do the crosswords, and she tells him what the weather is like since he cannot venture outdoors himself. The whole family also helps Max paint over the remaining pages of Mein Kampf so he can continue his writings and sketches.
In June, as the war intensifies in places far from Molching, Ilsa Hermann hands Liesel a letter terminating her foster mother's employment—and with it, the last trace of Rosa Hubermann's meager income. Ilsa also insists that Liesel take The Whistler as a gift. She does, but later returns to give back the book and unload a torrent of anger and insults at the wealthy woman.
Meanwhile, Rudy Steiner endures frequent abuse at the hands of his Hitler Youth leader, Franz Deutscher. One day, after being humiliated by Deutscher, Rudy asks Liesel to go steal something with him to improve his mood. Liesel takes him to the mayor's house, knowing that Ilsa Hermann leaves the window open in the library. Instead of stealing food like Rudy wants, she sneaks in and steals The Whistler. Rudy stops attending Hitler Youth in order to avoid Deutscher; eventually, thanks to his brother Kurt, Rudy is reassigned to a different Hitler Youth group.
Part Six: The Dream Carrier
Shortly after Christmas of 1942—an event highlighted by Liesel, her foster parents, and Max building a snowman in the basement using buckets of snow from outside their house—Max's health begins to decline. In February, he collapses and falls unconscious. The Hubermanns place him upstairs in Liesel's bed to recover. Liesel gathers discarded items from the outside world and leaves them next to him as gifts, somehow believing they might help him get better and wake up. She also reads to him each day, and even makes a trip with Rudy to the mayor's house to steal another book for Max to listen to; the book is called The Dream Carrier.
Max remains unconscious for over a month, and the Hubermanns begin to fear that he will die—leaving them not only with grief, but also with the additional danger of having a dead Jew in their house. Finally, one day while Liesel is at school, Rosa visits on the pretense of yelling at the girl for stealing her hair brush; the real message, however—whispered under her breath—is that Max is finally awake. By April, he has fully recovered and reclaimed his living space in the basement.
In June, however, members of the Nazi Party make the rounds throughout the neighborhood, inspecting basements to determine which are the deepest—and therefore most suitable—to serve as bomb shelters in the event of an Allied attack. Liesel notices the inspectors and acts quickly to warn her family. They contemplate moving Max out of the basement, but Hans decides it would be best to leave him hidden there behind the drop-sheets and paint cans that cover his living space. The Nazi inspector spends three long minutes in the basement, and then informs Hans that it is too shallow to serve as a bomb shelter. Max has gone undiscovered, and they all narrowly escape an awful fate.
Part Seven: The Complete Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus
As the citizens of Molching prepare for possible attack, Hans Hubermann enjoys a resurgence in his painting business, blackening windows to make internal lights invisible to nighttime bombers. Liesel often goes with her father to help him paint, and loves hearing him tell stories of his life.
Throughout the summer, Rudy practices his running in preparation for a competition at a Hitler Youth carnival. Rudy wins three of the four race events, relishing his victories over Franz Deutscher. In his final event, however, he is disqualified for jumping the starting gun. Rudy later confesses that he did it on purpose, though he does not explain himself.
Liesel steals another book from the library of the mayor's house, titled A Song in the Dark.
Soon after, Rudy shows Liesel something unusual: at the mayor's house, the window to the library is closed, but a book rests against it on the inside. Liesel lifts the window and takes it. The book is The Complete Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus, and inside is a letter for Liesel from Ilsa Hermann. Ilsa informs Liesel that she knows the girl has been entering the library and stealing books, but she does not mind. She writes, “My only hope is that one day you will knock on the front door and enter the library in the more civilized manner.”
One September night, they wake to the sirens warning of a coming air raid. They hurry to the nearest approved shelter, the basement of a family named the Fiedlers. Other occupants include Rudy and his family, and Frau Holtzapfel—a spiteful neighbor engaged in a long-standing feud with Rosa Hubermann. This first warning, they later discover, was a false alarm. It is soon followed, however, by another real warning. Crowded in a basement filled with fearful civilians, Liesel opens The Whistler and begins reading in an attempt to calm everyone down. Soon enough, they are all engrossed in the tale; when the siren sounds to indicate safety, they all remain in place to allow Liesel to finish reading the first chapter. They return home to find that Molching has narrowly escaped the bombs.
In the days that follow, Frau Holtzapfel appears at the Hubermann's front door. She tells Liesel that she enjoyed the first chapter of The Whistler, and she would like the girl to come to her house regularly and read her the rest of the book. In exchange, Frau Holtzapfel agrees to stop spitting on the Hubermann's front door—a nasty tradition spawned from her feud with Rosa—and also agrees to give the Hubermanns her ration of coffee.
Soon after, a group of Nazi soldiers decide to march their cargo of Jews through the streets of Molching on their way to the concentration camp at Dachau. As the residents watch, one of the Jews falls behind and repeatedly drops to his knees, only to be forced back to his feet by the soldiers. As he passes, Hans Hubermann walks out into the assembly of Jews and gives the man a piece of bread. Both the Jew and Hans receive lashes from a whip; Hans's paint cart is overturned and he is called a Jew-lover.
Only afterward does Hans realize that his actions have placed his family and Max in jeopardy. Fearing that Nazi officials will come to search their house, Max packs his things and departs under cover of night. He tells Liesel that he has left her something, but that she will not receive it until the time is right.
Part Eight: The Word Shaker
Despite Hans Hubermann's fears, Nazi officials come not for him, but for Rudy Steiner. His excellent academic and athletic abilities have attracted their attention, and they would like the boy to attend a special school. His fearful father, however, refuses to let him go.
In November, Hans Hubermann is surprised to finally receive a letter approving his application to be a member of the Nazi Party. It is followed soon after by a draft notice enlisting him to serve in the German army. Liesel soon discovers that Rudy's father Alex will suffer the same fate. One night, after Hans has left for the war, Liesel wakes to find Rosa—usually so loud and often outwardly callous—sitting on her bed, silently holding her husband's accordion.
Instead of being sent to Russia as he fears, Hans remains in Germany as part of a unit of soldiers known among themselves as “Dead Body Collectors,” tasked with cleaning up the devastation caused by Allied air raids. Alex serves in Vienna, using his skills as a tailor to repair clothing destined for soldiers fighting in Russia.
In December of 1942, another parade of Jews is marched through Molching. Rudy decides to leave bread in the street for the hungry Jews to take—inspired by Hans Hubermann's infamous act of generosity—and Liesel helps him. They are chased off by Nazi soldiers, but only after some of the Jews find and eat the offerings. Liesel is both disappointed and gladdened that Max is not among the captured Jews. For Christmas, Rosa gives Liesel a final gift from Max, which she had been holding onto at his request. It is another book created by him, titled The Word Shaker. It is a dreamlike tale of a girl, the power of words, and the young man who inspires her to use them.
Part Nine: The Last Human Stranger
Liesel returns to the mayor's house and takes another book, The Last Human Stranger, along with a plate of cookies that has been left for her. She is surprised when Ilsa Hermann opens the door and finds her there; they have a brief but pleasant conversation. Later, Liesel meets Frau Holtzapfel's son Michael, who lost a hand fighting in Stalingrad; her other son, Robert, died there. Michael informs Rosa that Hans Junior is fighting there as well, but does not know his fate.
Hans, while preparing to ride out with his unit for clean-up duty, is forced to switch seats with an intimidating soldier named Reinhold Zucker. The truck they ride in blows a tire and loses control, flipping several times. Hans suffers a broken leg, but Zucker—having taken Hans's usual seat—is killed. Because of his injury, Hans is sent back home.
Part Ten: The Book Thief
In July of 1943, a few months after Hans has returned home, Michael Holtzapfel hangs himself, guilt-ridden over the loss of his brother. In August, Liesel—who makes a habit of searching the occasional parades of captured Jews—finds Max Vandenburg. She runs to Max and embraces him, undeterred by the cracking whips of the Nazi overseers. The soldiers separate them, and Rudy holds Liesel back as Max is taken away. She later reveals the secret of Max's hiding to Rudy.
Liesel sneaks once more into Ilsa Hermann's library for another book, but becomes angry over the unfairness of the world and instead tears a book apart. She leaves a letter of apology and promises never to return. Three days later, Ilsa Hermann visits her at home. She brings a special book as a gift: a book of empty pages. She tells the girl, “I thought if you're not going to read any more of my books, you might like to write one instead.” Liesel takes her advice, and working in the basement that once housed a hidden Jew, she begins writing a memoir of her life from the time her young brother died. She calls it The Book Thief. She finishes the book in October with the following line: “I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
Five nights later, while Liesel is in the basement rereading her book, the bombs finally fall on Molching without warning, as the city sleeps. Everyone on her street is killed—Hans and Rosa Hubermann, Frau Holtzapfel, Rudy Steiner and his siblings—except Liesel, who happened to be in the safest place possible. She is buried beneath the rubble, but when workers find her, she is unhurt. Dazed and unable to comprehend the devastation, she drops her book and cries out for her papa, Hans.
Epilogue: The Last Color
Death does not encounter Liesel Meminger for many years after that. In fact, he states, “I should tell you that the book thief died only yesterday.” When Death finally visits Liesel as an old woman in Sydney, Australia, he is able to glimpse additional details of her life after the bombing through fragments of her memories. After her street was destroyed, Liesel was taken in by Ilsa Hermann and her husband, the mayor. Erik Steiner returned from the war to find that his family had been killed; eventually he reopened his clothing shop, and Liesel often worked there with him. In October of 1945, after the end of the war, Liesel was reunited with Max Vandenburg, who was fortunate enough to survive the concentration camps.
Conversing with Death, Liesel is surprised that he has kept and read her book so many times. She wants to know if it is possible for Death to understand a story so centered on life and living. Death simply responds: “I am haunted by humans.”
Arthur Berg is the leader of a group of youngsters who steal various things in and around Molching. Rudy and Liesel briefly join his gang of thieves, stealing various items such as potatoes and onions. He is a generous leader, sharing his various takes with Liesel and Rudy. Arthur later moves to Cologne, where his younger sister is killed—presumably by Allied bombing.
Herbert Bollinger is an old acquaintance of Hans Hubermann. When Hans notices in the mid-1930s that the number of customers for his painting business are dwindling, Bollinger points out that he should be a member of the Nazi Party if he wants to keep working.
- An unabridged audio recording of The Book Thief was released by Listening Library in 2006. The book is read by Allan Corduner, and is currently available on compact disc or as an audio download through http://www.audible.com
- An electronic book version of The Book Thief was released by Knopf Books for Young Readers in the Kindle electronic book format in 2007. This version is currently available for purchase through http://www.amazon.com.
Viktor Chemmel is the young man who takes over as leader of the gang of young thieves previously led by Arthur Berg. After Viktor offers Liesel and Rudy almost nothing for their efforts on a thievery run, Rudy insults him and Viktor beats him up. Later, Viktor throws one of Liesel's books into the river.
Death is the narrator of The Book Thief, and participates in the story by taking the lives of many of the characters at various times. He first notices Liesel when he takes the life of her young brother Werner. Later, after he collects the many victims of the bombing on Himmel Street, he finds Liesel's memoir on a pile of trash, and takes it. From it he learns Liesel's story, which he shares with the reader.
Franz Deutscher is Rudy Steiner and Tommy Müller's sadistic Hitler Youth leader. When Tommy fails to hear his commands during marching, both Tommy and Rudy—who stands up for his friend—become his favorite targets of punishment. After Rudy moves to a different Hitler Youth group, he takes pleasure in winning several events at an athletic competition as Deutscher looks on.
Frau is the owner of the corner shop on Himmel Street. An avid supporter of the Nazi Party, she demands that everyone offer a salutary “heil Hitler” when they enter her store.
The Fiedlers are the family with the deepest basement on Himmel Street, which is chosen as the meeting location for Himmel Street residents in the event of an air raid. It is in their basement that Liesel calms both the children and adults by reading excerpts from her book, The Whistler. Like the others on Himmel Street, they die during a surprise bombing by Allied planes.
Rolf Fischer is a leading member of the Nazi Party in Molching. In 1937, he sees Hans Hubermann painting over the door of Joel Kleinmann, a Jewish store owner, after it had been marked by a Star of David and the words “Jewish filth.” This is part of the reason why Hans Hubermann is not accepted as a member of the Nazi Party until many years later.
Frau Heinrich is the foster-care agent who transports Liesel on her final journey to her new home with the Hubermanns. When Liesel arrives, she is at first unwilling to get out of Frau Heinrich's car. Later, when Hans Hubermann contacts her regarding the whereabouts of Liesel's biological mother, she states that she does not know where the woman is.
Heinz Hermann is the mayor of Molching and husband of Ilsa Hermann. In June of 1941, he mentions in an interview for the local paper that the citizens of Molching should prepare for harder times to come. A week later, he and his wife fire Rosa Hubermann as their launderer. After the bombing of Himmel Street, Heinz and Ilsa take Liesel in and raise her as their own.
Ilsa Hermann is the wife of the mayor of Molching, Heinz Hermann. Liesel's foster mother Rosa washes their laundry, and the Hermanns are her last remaining customers until they too must stop using her services as the war rages on. On the day of the bonfire, she sees Liesel steal a book from the burned remains;she later invites Liesel to use her library, which she does on a regular basis, forging a bond between the two. After Himmel Street is destroyed, Ilsa and Heinz Hermann take Liesel in as their own.
Frau Holtzapfel is the next-door neighbor of the Hubermanns. She and Rosa Hubermann are longtime enemies for an unknown reason, and Frau Holtzapfel faithfully spits on the Hubermann's front door every time she passes. After being huddled together in a basement during an air raid, Frau Holtzapfel makes a deal with Rosa: she will stop spitting on her door if Liesel will visit her regularly and read to her from one of her books.
Michael Holtzapfel is one of Frau Holtzapfel's two sons. He loses his hand fighting in Stalingrad, while his brother dies there. After he returns home to live with Frau Holtzapfel, he cannot overcome the guilt of surviving when his brother did not. He eventually commits suicide by hanging himself.
Hans Hubermann is Liesel's foster father, reading teacher, and eventually the most significant person in her life. He is a tall, quiet man with a gentle nature whose sympathy for Jews results in him being eyed with suspicion by local members of the Nazi Party, as well as his son Hans Junior. He agrees to secretly harbor a Jew named Max Vandenburg in his basement, an event which places him and his family in great danger. Although he escapes death twice as a soldier, he is killed during the Allied bombing of Himmel Street.
Hans Hubermann Junior
Hans Hubermann Junior is the adult son of Hans and Rosa Hubermann. A faithful member of the Nazi Party, he has arguments with his father over the older man's apparent lack of support for Nazism. After one argument, on the day of Hitler's birthday celebration, Hans Junior leaves his parents' house and never returns. He later dies in combat in Russia.
Rosa Hubermann is Liesel's foster mother, who lives on Himmel Street in the small town of Molching with her husband Hans. She is a brash, strict woman who frequently refers to those around her as filthy pigs. Later, Liesel realizes that Rosa's harsh exterior masks a deep love for the people in her life. Like most of the residents of Himmel Street, she is killed by Allied bombs during an air strike.
Trudy is the adult daughter of Hans and Rosa Hubermann. She works as a housemaid for a family in Munich, and occasionally returns to Molching on holidays to visit her parents. She is quiet but kind, like her father.
Joel Kleinmann is the Jewish owner of a shoe store in Molching. When his shop is vandalized in 1937, Hans Hubermann paints over a slur that has been written on his door.
Walter Kugler is the childhood friend of Max Vandenburg. The two often fist-fought each other as part of a friendly rivalry. When Max faces persecution and possible imprisonment as a Jew, Kugler—who is not a Jew, and therefore safe from the reach of Nazis—hides Max for nearly two years. When Kugler finds out he is being relocated to Poland, he meets with Hans Hubermann to see if Hans will help Max hide.
Liesel Meminger, the main character in The Book Thief, is a girl who is left in the care of a foster family at a young age. Her brother dies on the way to the foster home, and at the cemetery where he is buried, Liesel sees a book resting in the snow. She takes it, and thus begins her career as a book thief. Ilsa Hermann catches her stealing a book, and invites her to borrow more books from her massive library. Liesel becomes an avid reader, and Ilsa Hermann eventually encourages her to write her own book. She does, working in the basement of her foster family's home, where she once spent time with Max Vanderburg, a Jew in hiding. One night, while Liesel is reading over her finished book in the basement, Allied forces bomb Himmel Street, killing everyone except for Liesel. She is then taken in and raised by Ilsa Hermann and her husband, the mayor. The book she has written, lost in the rubble of Himmel Street, is found by Death and kept as an example of how humans are as capable of wonderful things as they are of horrible things.
Liesel's biological mother, PaulaMeminger, leaves Liesel with a foster family in Munich and, though Liesel later tries to contact her, disappears. Liesel later figures out that it is likely she was taken away by Hitler for being a communist.
Werner Meminger, Liesel's younger brother, dies after having a coughing fit on the train journey to Munich with his mother and sister. Liesel and her mother bury the boy at a local cemetery before continuing their journey; this cemetery is where Liesel steals her first book, The Grave Digger's Handbook.
Tommy Müller is a boy who lives on Himmel Street and goes to school with Liesel and Rudy. Plagued by chronic ear infections and scarred by several related operations, Tommy is partially deaf and prone to facial twitches. Rudy Steiner stands up for Tommy during Nazi Youth activities after he fails to hear commands, and both boys are frequently punished together. Like the others on Himmel Street, he is killed during the Allied bombing.
Pfiffikus is a foul-mouthed old man who lives on Himmel Street. No one seems to know his real name, but he is called Pfiffikus because he constantly whistles a tune as he walks. He is one of the Himmel Street residents who later shares the Fiedlers' basement during air raids.
Sergeant Boris Schipper is Hans Hubermann's commanding officer when he is called to serve as a clean-up soldier during World War II. After Hans is injured when their transport truck rolls over, Schipper—who likes Hans due to his generosity when he wins at cards—recommends that Hans be allowed to return home and work in an office in Munich.
Ludwig Schmeikl is a boy in Liesel's class who teases her for being unable to read during her first months in Molching. One day during recess, after he relentlessly insults her, Liesel snaps and gives him a serious beating. The two later make amends during the bonfire at Hitler's birthday celebration.
Stephan Schneider is the officer in charge of Hans Hubermann and Erik Vandenburg's unit during their service in World War I. One day, he offers one soldier a chance to perform a non-combat-related task. Knowing that the other men will face the possibility of death, Erik recommends Hans for the job.
Alex Steiner is Rudy Steiner's father. He works as a tailor and owns his own clothing store in Molching. When Nazi officials want to take Rudy to a special officer's school due to his athletic and academic prowess, Alex refuses to let him go. Because of this, he is sent off to help with the war effort. Though he survives, his entire family is killed by the bombing of Himmel Street.
Kurt Steiner is Rudy Steiner's older brother. When Rudy begins to have trouble with Frans Deutscher, Kurt manages to get Rudy transferred to a different Hitler Youth division.
Rudy Steiner is Liesel's best friend, frequent companion, and occasional partner in thievery. He often looks out for Liesel, and frequently attempts—unsuccessfully—to get her to kiss him. Rudy is terrorized by his Hitler Youth leader, Franz Deutscher; after switching Hitler Youth groups, however, he excels at both athletics and academics. Nazi officials notice this, and ask his parents to allow him to attend a special Nazi officer's school they are creating. Rudy's parents refuse to let him go. He dies with his mother and siblings when the bombs are dropped on Himmel Street.
Erik Vandenburg is Hans Hubermann's closest friend. The two served together during World War I. Vandenburg, a Jew, teaches Hans how to play the accordion, and is responsible for Hans surviving when Vandenburg and everyone else in their unit is killed in combat: he saves Hans by recommending him for a non-combat
project. Hans keeps Vandenburg's accordion, and promises his wife that he will do whatever he can to repay the debt he owes to Vandenburg for saving his life.
Max Vandenburg is a Jew who is taken in by Hans Hubermann. He lives for a time in the Hubermanns' basement, and becomes close friends with Liesel. He makes Liesel two books of stories and sketches. Eventually, he leaves the Hubermanns' basement because he fears capture. Later, he is indeed captured, and Liesel sees him being marched through town on the way to a concentration camp. Max survives, and after the war he reunites with Liesel.
Reinhold Zucker is a fellow soldier in Hans's unit during World War II. When playing cards, he is a gloating winner and a sore loser. After Hans takes all of his cigarettes (used in place of money), Zucker gets angry and holds a grudge against him. Later, Zucker forces Hans to change seats with him on the transport truck as they head out to duty. The truck rolls over, and Zucker is the only one on board who is killed.
The Power of Written Words
Perhaps the most important theme found in The Book Thief is the power of words. Most of the major events in the story revolve around this theme. Even Hitler's rise to power, it is suggested, is largely the result of the popularity of his autobiography, Mein Kampf. Later, the power of this book is used against the Nazi cause: Hans hides the key he sends to Max inside a copy of it, knowing that no one would suspect the sender (or receiver) of such a book to be engaging in suspicious activities. The book serves a final purpose when Max tears out its pages and paints over them to create his own books.
For Liesel, her first book helps her hold on to the memory of her dead brother and absent mother. It is also the gateway for Liesel to forge a loving relationship with Hans, who teaches her how to read using the book. Words also bind Liesel to Max, who creates his own homemade books as gifts to her since he has nothing else to offer. Ilsa Hermann is tied to Liesel by books as well: she spies the girl stealing one from the burning remains of the bonfire, and later invites her into her massive library. Their relationship is almost ended by written words—the letter Ilsa gives her for her mother, terminating her employment—and is also saved by them when Ilsa writes Liesel a letter of apology and gives her a dictionary.
Finally, written words save Liesel's life. Because she is in the basement, rereading her work on her own memoir, she is the only survivor on Himmel Street when the Allied bombs are dropped. It is this book that leads Death to remember and share Liesel's story with the reader.
The novel, however, also depicts certain limitations to the power of the written word. For Hans, letters are insufficient to convey his thoughts and emotions while he is away as a soldier. Also, books are dependent upon one thing for their power: a reader. The books lining the walls of Ilsa Hermann's library serve no function—and indeed, the room itself appears cold and lifeless—until Liesel begins reading there. Liesel's own book is never read by another living soul, and is tossed onto a pile of trash after the bombing. It is very nearly lost before Death spots it and saves it.
Duality is the presence of different—often opposing—forces or traits in a single thing or person. This is used throughout The Book Thief to emphasize both the wonderful and terrible possibilities of humankind.
This dual nature is shown in nearly every character, including the most virtuous. Liesel herself is, as the title suggests, a thief; taken out of the context of her life, many of her actions would be considered immoral or worthy of punishment. She steals books, food, and even money from her foster mother, and she destroys one of Ilsa Hermann's books. Hans Hubermann, described as having eyes “made of kindness,” strikes Liesel hard across the face when she makes a disparaging statement about Hitler in public. He later threatens her with awful consequences if she ever reveals the secret of Max Vandenburg. He does these things for her protection, and he does them reluctantly; however, this illustrates the potential within even the most virtuous people to hurt those they love.
Rosa Hubermann is a clearer example of duality. She is brash, insulting, and speaks venomously of nearly everyone with whom she comes into contact—especially her husband Hans. When Hans is conscripted to serve in the war, however, her true feelings about him are revealed; Liesel discovers her sitting on the edge of her bed, cradling his accordion—an instrument she previously seemed to despise—and silently praying for his safe return. Similarly, though she constantly refers to Liesel as a “saumensch,” Liesel eventually realizes that boundless love exists just beneath the superficial insult.
Duality is perhaps most dramatically shown in Death's observations of humans. Seeing people's lives end day after day, often at the hands of other people, Death notes that he is “constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race.” In his final conversation with Liesel, he states about humans, “I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
Actions and Their Consequences
The theme of cause and effect is found throughout The Book Thief. As the narrator, Death takes great pains to delineate the interconnected nature of the actions and reactions of the characters. Although many events might be described as lucky or unlucky occurrences, their causes are nearly always revealed. Hans Hubermann, for example, manages to avoid death twice during military service—once during World War I, and again during World War II. The first time, he is saved because his friend Erik Vandenburg recommends him for a non-combat assignment; the indebtedness he feels to Erik, who dies that day, eventually results in him taking in Erik's son Max, a Jew in hiding, twenty years later. This in turn causes dramatic changes in the lives of Liesel and Rosa as well. At the same time, Hans's friendship with Kurt results in an enduring sympathy for persecuted Jews, which ultimately leads to Max having to leave the Hubermann's basement for fear of discovery by Nazis suspicious of Hans. It also leads Hans back to military duty, pressed into service as a sort of punishment for his sympathizing with Jews.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- One of the most important and tragic events in The Book Thief is the nighttime air bombing of Himmel Street by Allied forces. Indeed, World War II was the first war to feature large-scale bombings of non-military targets, also known as “strategic bombing.” In the decades following the war, the practice has become the subject of controversy. Research the topic of strategic bombing during World War II. Who engaged in it? What were the reasons for bombing non-military targets, and how were the targets chosen? What did this accomplish, and what were the consequences? In your opinion, was the practice justified by what it accomplished? Do you think the bombing of civilian targets is justified in other situations? Why or why not? Write a paper summarizing your findings and taking a position on the issue of strategic bombing.
- A popular childhood chant states, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Victims of insults are often told that the offense is “just words.” Under most circumstances in the United States, the accepted definition of assault is that it begins not when someone shouts abuse at another person, but when physical contact is made. The main message of The Book Thief, however, is rather opposite: that words are among the most powerful tools known to humankind. Do you think words hold the same power as physical action? Why or why not? Provide examples—from your personal experience or from historical research—to support your point.
- The Hitler Youth organization was meant to indoctrinate young Germans in the ideas and beliefs of the Nazi Party. Enrolling in the Hitler Youth was made mandatory in 1939, though enforcement was often lax; many young people, as shown in The Book Thief, thought the organization was beneficial only as an athletic or social organization, and ignored or dismissed its ideological underpinnings. After the end of World War II, however, many members of the Hitler Youth were persecuted for their implied support of the Nazis. Pope Benedict XVI, shortly after he was selected as the head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2005, briefly came under fire for having been a member of the Hitler Youth. Do you think it is fair to condemn young people who participated in the Hitler Youth as supporters of Nazism? What about adults who were drafted to fight for Nazi Germany? In your opinion, at what point is the statement “I was just doingwhat I was forced to do” not an acceptable reason?
- One important element of The Book Thief is the notion of duality in humans—the idea that people are capable of both horrible and wonderful things. Death sees the horrible results of human action on a daily basis, and therefore cherishes the rare examples he finds—such as Liesel's story—that convince him humans are actually worthy beings. This dual nature is shown to exist in nearly every person in The Book Thief; Rosa Hubermann in particular is shown to be stern and cruel at first, but gradually her soft and loving side is revealed. At the same time, some figures—such as Hitler and Reinhold Zucker—are never revealed as having any redeeming qualities. In your opinion, do all people contain the potential for both good and bad, or are some people simply good while others are bad? Is there a danger in viewing certain people such as Hitler as simply evil, without attempting to understand their actions? Why or why not?
Similarly, Hans escapes death a second time because he beats his fellow soldiers at cards—a game largely of chance. His win, even though he is gracious and offers some of his winnings back to the other players, angers another soldier, who later forces Hans to change seats with him on their transport truck. During that trip, the truck rolls over, and the other soldier—sitting where Hans would have sat—is the only casualty. In addition, Hans's generosity when winning at cards persuades his sergeant to recommend that he be able to return home to his family. This lucky turn of events results in Hans being present on Himmel Street when the Allied bombs are dropped, resulting in his death.
The Book Thief is written in the form of a memoir. A memoir is a personal record of events in the writer's own life. Hitler's Mein Kampf, mentioned often in the novel, is a memoir, as is the book that Liesel writes about her own experiences. In addition, The Book Thief itself often serves as a memoir for its narrator, Death; in addition to revealing his own experiences with Liesel and the people in her life, there are also sections throughout the book labeled Death's Diary that relate brief glimpses of the narrator's other grim work during World War II.
Foreshadowing and Flash-Forwards
Foreshadowing, or the suggestion of what will happen later in the story, is used extensively in The Book Thief. The narrator frequently hints of what is to come later, as when he states in the Prologue, “I saw the book thief three times.” The author also uses flash-forwards, or glimpses at events that take place in advance of the story's current time frame. For example, after revealing how many times he saw the book thief, the narrator goes on to provide detailed descriptions of each occasion—though two of those events will not take place until near the end of the book. Another example of foreshadowing occurs when Liesel convinces herself that Ilsa Hermann did not see her take a book from the bonfire. The narrator quickly offers, “The mayor's wife had seen her, all right. She was just waiting for the right moment.” Similarly, when Viktor Chemmel threatens to make Rudy pay for spitting at him, the narrator informs the reader, “It took him approximately five months to turn his statement into a true one.” The act of vengeance occurs twenty-five pages later.
The foreshadowing in The Book Thief often explicitly reveals the fates of the characters. The narrator tells the reader in no uncertain terms what will happen, as when he states about Reinhold Zucker shortly after introducing him: “He would die with his mouth open.” The narrator also makes it clear that Rudy Steiner will die, though the circumstances of his death are kept vague until the event occurs.
Stories Within Stories
The Book Thief contains many stories within the main tale being told by the narrator. This includes brief asides by the narrator, which touch upon events not directly related to Liesel's story. In addition, the books Liesel reads are mostly fictional works, and the basic plot of each is described for the reader, often along with snippets of text from many of the books.
The clearest examples of stories within the story, however, are the ones Max creates for Liesel. They are even presented in a different format than the rest of the book, in what is meant to represent Max's own hand-written and hand-drawn work.
The Rise of the Nazi Party and Hitler Youth
The Nazi Party, or the National Socialist German Workers Party, rose to power in the wake of the economic turmoil Germany suffered after being defeated in World War I. Founded in 1918, the party focused on a platform of national unity and pride, coupled with the darker goals of driving Jews out of the country and expanding Germany's borders at the expense of neighboring countries. Adolf Hitler became a member and quickly rose to the highest ranks due to his ambition and oratory skills; he attempted to seize control of the German government in 1923, but was unsuccessful and instead spent a little over one year in jail. During this time, he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), a book that offered a positive and persuasive view of his actions and political beliefs.
As economic conditions worsened in the years that followed—in part due to the Great Depression, which had a drastic effect on the global economy—Hitler's promises of a prosperous Germany won over a large percentage of the population. By the early 1930s, the Nazi Party had won substantial power in the Reichstag, or German parliament, not by force but by election. Hitler, however—despite his popularity—was not elected. Instead, as the governing bodies of Germany fell into chaos, the president appointed Hitler Chancellor of Germany. He quickly seized control of government and military offices, silencing his critics and any other social elements he considered undesirable.
The Hitler Youth was created in 1922, composed primarily of the children of Nazi Party members. Like the Nazi Party itself, the organization grew slowly but steadily until 1930, when membership expanded dramatically; between 1930 and 1934, Hitler Youth membership skyrocketed from 26,000 to over 3.5 million. As Michael H. Kater points out in Hitler Youth, “Many if not most of the youth cohort for the period of the 1920s and very early 1930s felt cheated out of what chances they had thought were theirs and increasingly looked to radical alternatives.” The group was briefly banned in 1932, but was quickly reinstated in recognition of Hitler's influence and popularity.
The organization was meant to serve as pre-military training, and older members of the Hitler Youth almost inevitably went on to become Nazi soldiers fighting on the front lines or officers in charge of expanding Hitler Youth membership. Equivalent organizations for females and for younger children were also formed; these more closely resembled activity clubs than military groups, though they also provided the Nazi Party with an opportunity to indoctrinate youngsters with their beliefs. Although Hitler Youth began with voluntary membership, it was later required for all eligible German children.
As the German war effort faltered in the early 1940s, the Nazi Party began to call up younger and younger members of the Hitler Youth to active duty in the national militia. Members as young as fourteen were called upon to serve in antiaircraft units, and were killed in the increased bombings within Germany's borders. With the defeat of Germany in 1945 by Allied forces, the Hitler Youth and its related organizations were quickly disbanded. Many German children who had been forced into compulsory Hitler Youth programs were often stigmatized later in life due to their involvement with organizations so closely associated with Nazism.
The Allied Bombing of German Cities
As Allied forces waged war against Germany and the other Axis powers during World War II, British (and later American) air forces began bombing raids on German-occupied areas of Europe that were not considered combat locations. The justification for these bombings was twofold: the targets for these bombings were often strategic pieces of German industry or infrastructure, meaning that their destruction would weaken Germany's ability to continue supporting its troops with weaponry and other essentials; also, it was believed that destruction of some non-military targets would serve to weaken the morale of German citizens and erode support for Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Between the British Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force, over 1.5 million tons of bombs were dropped on Germany between 1939 and 1945. Munich, the large city near which Liesel and her foster family live in The Book Thief, was subjected to over seventy separate bombing attacks by air. One of the worst bombings, however, was reserved for the city of Dresden in February of 1945. The city was obliterated in two days of nonstop attacks—the bombs set off fires that raged uncontrolled in their wake. Conservative estimates of civilian casualties—deaths of those not involved in combat in any way—exceed twenty thousand, and some believe that as many as 40,000 German citizens were killed.
In all, historians estimate that approximately 600,000 German civilians were killed by Allied bombings during the war—dwarfing the estimated loss of around 14,000 British citizens due to German air attacks. One in every nine German civilian casualties was a child. Because of these startling statistics, the practice of bombing in city areas has been a source of great controversy ever since.
When The Book Thief was published in 2005 as a book for children and young adults, it met with initial skepticism regarding its length (550 pages) and its subject matter (a child living in Nazi Germany, surrounded by death). However, reviews for the novel were overwhelmingly positive, which helped to propel the book to the status of bestseller.
Most of the praise for the work centered on the resonant power of the story, though the author's skill with language was also complimented in many reviews. Francisca Goldsmith, in a review for School Library Journal, calls the book “[a]n extraordinary narrative.” Goldsmith also observes that the author “not only creates a mesmerizing and original story but also writes with poetic syntax.” Claire E. Gross, reviewing the novel for The Horn Book Magazine, refers to it as a “deeply affecting tale.” She also writes, “Exquisitely written and memorably populated, Zusak's poignant tribute to words, survival, and their curiously inevitable entwinement is a tour de force to be not just read but inhabited.”
Michael Cart, in a brief recommendation from Booklist, expresses pleasant surprise over the novel's achievements: “Who would have thought that Death could be such an engaging—even sympathetic—narrator? And has there ever been a better celebration of the lifesavingand affirming power of books and the reading of them?” In a review for School Libarary Journal, Barbara Wysocki compliments the “richly evocative imagery and compelling characters” of the novel, while April Brannon, writing for the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, points out the “surreal and often stunning” imagery created by the author.
Some reviews of the book included brief cautions about the subject matter and its appropriateness for young readers. Brannon notes that the book “is set in the bleakest of circumstances but is a surprisingly hopeful story about the atrocities that occurred during the Nazi years in Germany.” She also suggests that it “would work best with high school audiences.” Goldsmith seems to agree, stating that the novel “deserves the attention of sophisticated teen and adult readers.”
Lev Grossman, in a review for Time, recommends the book for “more ambitious younger readers.” He specifically notes that the opening pages of the book are “rather challenging.” Grossman also writes, “Zusak doesn't sugarcoat anything, but he makes his ostensibly gloomy subject bearable the same way Kurt Vonnegut did in Slaughterhouse-Five: with grim, darkly consoling humor.” An unsigned review in Publishers Weekly calls it “a challenging book in both length and subject, and best suited to sophisticated older readers.” The reviewer also notes that despite the often dark subject matter, the author's “playfulness with language leavens the horror and makes the theme even more resonant.” The reviewer does point out, however, that the narrator “has a bad habit of forecasting” upcoming events. Hazel Rochman, in her largely positive review for Booklist, concedes that the novel has “too much commentary at the outset, and too much switching from past to present time.”
The Book Thief earned the top spot on the New York Times Children's Bestseller List and remained on the list for over five months. It has also been a number-one seller in Ireland, Taiwan, and Brazil. The book earned Zusak a Michael L. Printz Honor Award in 2007, as well as the Kathleen Mitchell Award and the Teen Book Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries.
Greg Wilson has written essays and articles examining a wide range of topics related to popular culture, from contemporary best-selling fiction to World War II memoirs. In this essay, Wilson argues that the author's use of Death as the narrator of The Book Thief conflicts with the most basic theme of the novel.
Markus Zusak's young adult novel The Book Thief has received wide acclaim for its unique portrayal of the life of a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Upon its publication, critics lauded its characters and story; Hazel Rochman of Booklist compliments the book's “astonishing characters,” while Francisca Goldsmith of School Library Journal calls the work “[a]n extraordinary narrative.” Many other critics also celebrated the book's unique narrator—Death—and his playful presentation of the tale. Indeed, Zusak's story and characters are memorable, and even haunting. In addition, he employs numerous techniques to convey the otherworldly nature of the narrator. However, these techniques amount to a narratorial intrusion in the story that weakens its most basic—and most important—message.
Death is obviously not just any old character, and it stands to reason that his “voice” as conveyed in the novel should have something of the ineffable about it. Zusak accomplishes this in several ways, one of which is his use of synesthetic and otherwise “impossible” descriptions.
Synesthesia is a condition in which a victim suffers from an uncontrolled commingling or interconnection of the senses. For example, a person with synesthesia may be able to “see” colors when certain sounds are heard. Neurologist Richard E. Cytowic, in his book Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses, sums up the condition:
Is synesthesia a real perception of a sense datum or just a projection? Is there actually the rare individual who can really hear colors and taste shapes? Yes, there is, and his existence does not rely on our wanting to believe the impossible.
Zusak uses synesthetic descriptions—combining seemingly contradictory sensory information—throughout The Book Thief. It is suggested by the narrator's connection of certain colors to the deaths of different people, but it also appears more explicitly, as when the narrator refers to the colors in the following way: “A billion or so flavors, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on.” Later, when Liesel discovers the fate of her biological parents, there is another example: “Even Papa's music was the color of darkness.” When Liesel enters Ilsa Hermann's library after Christmas, the narrator states, “The room tasted like sugar and dough, and thousands of pages.”
Similarly, the narrator also associates sensory information with the abstract, making for descriptions that are impossible but evocative. This is seen in the chapter heading “The Smell of Friendship.” Another example can be found in Liesel's farewell with Max Vandenburg: “She could smell his breath of goodbye.” It also appears in Reinhold Zucker's far more pedestrian “smell of victory.” Speaking of Frau Diller, the narrator notes: “Her voice was like suicide, landing with a clunk at Liesel's feet.” Speaking of the uneasiness one experiences while harboring a Jew: “The fear is shiny.” Describing Hans Hubermann's eyes: “They were made of kindness, and silver.”
If one assumes that the author's extensive use of such unusual description is meant to reflect the voice of his narrator, then perhaps this would help to suggest the narrator's unique, otherworldly state of being. The problem is, descriptions such as these are deliberately showy; they stop the reader's eyes as they scan, and either force the reader to try and visualize something they cannot, or ask the reader to acknowledge that they are, indeed, clever turns of phrase. They interrupt the story in order to showcase the narrator's voice (or the author's).
Another characteristic of the novel, again sensibly attributed to the narrator's inhuman nature, is the constant use of foreshadowing. Sometimes the foreshadowing precedes the events themselves by merely a paragraph. Some examples are simply confusing, as when the narrator mentions—just after Liesel arrives in Munich at the beginning of her tale—a half-dozen events that will not occur for hundreds of pages. Nearly every major event in the novel is foretold in some way; for example, scarcely halfway through the novel, we are told about Rudy Steiner, “He did not deserve to die the way he did,” even though he does not die for another two years. Many foreshadowed moments are detailed enough to qualify as flash-forwards, such as Death's descriptions of his encounters with Liesel in the Prologue.
This technique would seem to suggest a narrator who either has trouble with human conceptions of time, or has so memorized the tale of Liesel that he cannot help but flit from piece to piece, excitedly forecasting upcoming events the way a theatergoer who has already seen a movie gently nudges the audience member next to him and whispers, “Ooh, here comes a great part.” In either case, the device itself seems to make sense for the choice of narrator. However, this also tends to rob the story of much of its surprise and impact.
Another technique of the narrator—again giving the author the benefit of the doubt and assuming he meant it to reflect his narrator's voice, and not his own—is the repeated use of callouts within the body of the story. They occur on almost every page as centered and headlined blocks of bolded text. They are clearly meant as asides to the story at hand, with titles like “A SMALL QUESTION AND ITS ANSWER” or “SOME FACTS ABOUT RUDY STEINER.” However, most of these attention-seeking blurbs would have fit quite naturally in the regular flow of text, without the showy headlines. And some others are such deliberate attempts at artful turns of phrase that they just do not fit at all, such as the callout titled “A PAINTED IMAGE” that refers to Liesel seeing her foster mother sadly wearing her foster father's accordion after he is called away to war. It reads in full: “Rosa with accordion. Moonlight on Dark. 5'1” x Instrument x Silence.” Obviously there is no painted image, and this is just a pretentious way of framing the scene as if it were a piece of art identified by a placard on the gallery wall. One can choose to view this as an author's attempt to experiment with description, or as the narrator's attempt to do the same. Either way, it fails; worse yet, it stomps on an otherwise touching moment where Liesel realizes the true depths of her foster parents' relationship.
The narrator also seems able to describe in vivid detail scenes at which hewas not present. He clearly indicates in the beginning that he only saw the book thief three times (though this is not quite true, since he also sees her when she dies as an old woman). Yet the remainder of the book includes extensive descriptions of events that even Liesel was not present for, such as the flashbacks of Hans Hubermann and Max Vandenburg. In addition, many of the narrator's descriptions seem to presume knowledge inside the heads of characters other than Liesel. Even if we allow that Death is telling us a story based on Liesel's memoir—which is by and large the only source of information he would have access to—we would also have to concede that these descriptions are then based upon Liesel's recollections and interpretations. It would seem, then, that the story we are being told consists entirely of at least second-hand and largely of third-hand information (Death interpreting Liesel's words interpreting another character's behavior or words).
This begs the question: what purpose does the narrator serve? Why not do away with the device of the narrator altogether? Why do we, the readers, not get to enjoy Liesel's words ourselves? We see very brief snippets, and we are offered a rather lame excuse about the book having deteriorated from so many read-throughs by the narrator that it has fallen apart.
The reason this becomes problematic has to do with the main theme of the novel. The obvious message of The Book Thief is simple: words—especially books—are powerful. They can sway a nation, as with Hitler's Mein Kampf; they can serve as a link to past experiences, as The Grave Digger's Handbook does for Liesel; they can capture the imagination so thoroughly that a group of terrified Germans huddled in a basement briefly forget about the threat of bombs dropping upon them; they can literally save a person's life, as they do for both Max Vandenburg and Liesel.
It is disappointing that this underlying conceit of the novel—that words wield such amazing power, especially in book form—is undermined by the fact that we as readers are kept at a distance from Liesel's own words—her own powerful book. What better way to illustrate the power of books than to give us access to Liesel's own? Instead we are given an intermediary—and a showy, contrived one at that—who gives us a second-hand version of her tale.
Why does Zusak choose to tell the story in a way that undermines its most basic theme? In an interview taken from the Readers Guide of the paperback edition of the book, Zusak states, “I thought, ‘Here's a book set during war. Everyone says war and death are best friends.’ Death is ever-present during war, so here was the perfect choice to narrate The Book Thief.” The only problem with this line of thinking is that the book is not about war—it is about the power of books. Based upon the amount of attention the novel earned due to its high-concept narrator, one has to wonder if the idea just so tickled Zusak with its cleverness and audacity—the same way it later tickled many potential readers, who knew almost nothing else about it but were compelled to pick it up—that he found a way to make sure he fit his story into that framework, regardless of how much shoving it took to get it in.
This trick up Zusak's sleeve in The Book Thief is a device no less gimmicky than the one Alice Sebold employed in The Lovely Bones, coincidentally—or perhaps not—another young adult novel that achieved great success among adult readers. For Sebold's novel, the gimmick—that the narrator was murdered before the tale begins—masked a comparatively meatless and mawkish story, making it at first appear far better than it actually was. For Zusak's tale, the gimmick of Death as narrator results in a far
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), by Kurt Vonnegut, is a dark, funny look at a man named Billy Pilgrim who has become “unstuck” in time thanks to a race of aliens. Throughout the book, Pilgrim experiences snippets of events from throughout his life, one of the most significant being as a prisoner of war who lives through the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II.
- Anne Frank's memoir The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) is one of the best-known personal accounts of a Jew who lived in hiding during World War II. Anne's account was actually written during the ordeal, as her family and a few others lived in a hidden portion of a building in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. Though Anne herself died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945—days before Allies arrived to save the remaining prisoners—her tale has endured as a testament to the horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany.
- I Am the Messenger is a 2003 novel by Markus Zusak. Unlike The Book Thief, it is a contemporary tale; it concerns a young man named Ed Kennedy who becomes an accidental hero when he stops a bank robbery. Soon after, he begins receiving messages prompting him to perform other acts of justice and beneficence. The novel was chosen as the Book of the Year by the Children's Book Council of Australia, where it was originally published.
- In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer (1999), written by Irene Gut Opdyke with Jennifer Armstrong, is an autobiographical account of a Polish woman who risked her life to help save Jews in her Nazi-occupied homeland. Forced to work as a waitress for German officers, she used her position to gain information about German plans and shared it with the local Jews, with whom she sympathized for the hellish treatment they experienced. Later, after becoming a maid for a German major, she used the officer's own villa as a secret hideout for a dozen Jews.
more serious crime: he takes his own wonderful, resonant story and lessens its impact in exchange for the alluring, self-indulgent rush of high concept buzzworthiness. It is entirely possible that this made The Book Thief more popular; however, it most certainly did not make the book better.
Source: Greg Wilson, Critical Essay on The Book Thief, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning,2009.
In the following essay, Deveson takes Zusak to task for adopting an uneven and sometimes inappropriate style that trivializes his subject matter.
This over-praised, overlong novel is in trouble before it starts. The acknowledgments open with a tribute to someone “who is as warm as she is knowledgeable” and continue in the same saccharine manner. In the prologue we are met by pompous phrases “the jigsaw puzzle of realisation, despair and surprise”) or are annoyed by silly metaphors (“the greying light arm-wrestled the sky”).
There are many two-word sentences: “The survivors.”“One corpse.” “The sirens.”
Indeed, there are many two-word paragraphs. The grim thought occurs that writing like this has helped the book to its position at the top of the American bestseller lists.
Nine-year-old Liesel is the book thief of the title. In 1939, after seeing her brother die, she goes to live with the Hubermanns, a foster family, near Munich.
She grows up during the war, becoming fond of “Papa” with his accordion, less so of his irritable, foul-mouthed wife. She gets into fights, makes friends and is involved in sports events. She learns to keep the dangerous secret that a Jew has been hidden by the good-hearted Hubermanns. Above all, she steals books and discovers how to read them, finally becoming a writer herself.
Markus Zusak shows good intentions in describing wartime Germany as an extraordinary country inhabited by ordinary people. Organising the story around a girl preoccupied with clandestine writing might seem parasitic on an already famous book, although here the Jewish secret scribbler is male and hidden in the basement not the attic. The mere facts are indeed powerfully affecting; the Hitler Youth is a baleful presence, neighbours suffer terribly at Stalingrad, prisoners are marched to Dachau, those who take pity on them are beaten and, finally, Allied bombers kill nearly everyone we've got to know.
Unfortunately, Zusak has made Death himself the storyteller, ruining the book's cohesion and plausibility. Writers such as Anatoli (Babi Yar) and Gunter Grass (Cat and Mouse) managed with great concentration to describe the horror of war through the eyes of a child; their authenticity derives from the fearsome gap between innocence and experience. Zusak's Death is a cumbersome trope; he doesn't solve the narrative problem so much as betray the author's failure to recognise its nature. He is verbose and vapid, sentimental and simplistic, pleased with his own facile ironies, constantly inviting the reader's connivance in tediously familiar postmodern games.
Sometimes Death sounds like a goofy teenager:“You don't always get what you wish for. Especially in Nazi Germany.” The laboured fauxnaif idiom only draws attention to the refusal to engage with profound and stubborn problems of historical understanding. As a means of moral exploration, its nudging facetiousness is both smug and shallow. One of the many annoying interpolations in bold font reads: “THE SITUATION OF HANS AND ROSA HUBERMANN. Very sticky indeed. In fact, frightfully sticky.” Being Jewish in Nazi Germany is “a ruinous piece of the dumbest luck around”. One comment reads, “So much good, so much evil. Just add water”, reducing a desperate ethical predicament to complacent vulgarity.
Elsewhere, Death tries to be poetic. “Drizzle came down in spades”, he tells us in one loose metaphor. He likes flaunting conspicuously synaesthetic phrases that don't work when looked at
closely: “the smell of friendship”, “the scent of Hitler's gaze”, “he tasted like regret in the shadows of trees”. This pretentiousness suggests that Zusak has thought of setting himself a stylistic challenge, only to take the slick or crowd-pleasing way out. Death nudges us: “A KEY WORD- imagined”. It's a dangerous literary tactic to make a portentous promise that isn't performed.
Words are at the centre of the novel's claims on our imagination. Liesel holds words “in her hands like the clouds”. A fable in the book is called The Word Shaker. She realises, as others have, that “without words the Fuhrer was nothing”.
Yet at the climax, the words that Zusak chooses have a glossy Hollywood emptiness. Liesel addresses her dead mother: “God…it, you were so beautiful.” The Jews in the death camps have “broken bodies and dead, sweet hearts”. Language like this trivialises whatever it touches.
Source: Tom Deveson, “Lost for Words; Fiction,” in Sunday Times (London, England), Vol. 58, January 28, 2007, p. 1.
In the following review, the reviewer praises Zusak's writing, while criticizing his narrator's heavy-handedness.
This hefty volume is an achievement—a challenging book in both length and subject, and best suited to sophisticated older readers. The narrator is Death himself, a companionable if sarcastic fellow, who travels the globe ‘handing souls to the conveyor belt of eternity.’ Death keeps plenty busy during the course of this WWII tale, even though Zusak (I Am the Messenger) works in miniature, focusing on the lives of ordinary Germans in a small town outside Munich. Liesel Meminger, the book thief, is nine when she pockets The Gravedigger's Handbook, found in a snowy cemetery after her little brother's funeral. Liesel's father—a ‘Kommunist’—is already missing when her mother hands her into the care of the Hubermanns. Rosa Hubermann has a sharp tongue, but Hans has eyes ‘made of kindness.’ He helps Liesel overcome her nightmares by teaching her to read late at night. Hans is haunted himself, by the Jewish soldier who saved his life during WWI. His promise to repay that debt comes due when the man's son, Max, shows up on his doorstep. This ‘small story,’ as Death calls it, threads together gem-like scenes of the fates of families in this tight community, and is punctuated by Max's affecting, primitive artwork rendered on painted-over pages from Mein Kampf. Death also directly addresses readers in frequent asides; Zusak's playfulness with language leavens the horror and makes the theme even more resonant—words can save your life. As a storyteller, Death has a bad habit of forecasting (‘I'm spoiling the ending,’ he admits halfway through his tale). It's a measure of how successfully Zusak has humanized these characters that even though we know they are doomed, it's no less devastating when Death finally reaches them.
Source: Publisher's Weekly, “The Book Thief,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 70, No. 2, January 30, 2006, p. 1.
In the following essay, Zusak describes the “crossover” appeal of The Book Thief.
As the author of The Book Thief, a harrowing crossover novel set in Nazi Germany, Markus Zusak cuts a surprising figure. He is a bright-eyed, straightforward Aussie guy, casual in his demeanour and endearingly uncomfortable on the subject of his book.
“At home, no one would ever get up and say: ‘This is a great achievement.’ You just don't do that,” he says in his Antipodean lilt. “I see all that is wrong with [the book] now. It's a bit like a photo of yourself where everyone else seems to think you look really good, but you think:‘What, are you just lying?”’
But the book's success as an adult novel in Australia and as a children's title in the US proves it has merit. Random House plans to give it the same treatment as Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and launch it in the UK in January with simultaneous adult and children's editions under Doubleday and Bodley Head.
The Book Thief is an altogether more harrowing tale than Haddon's, woven from the experiences of Zusak's German mother and Austrian father before they emigrated to Sydney after the war. It was originally conceived as a 100-page novella—and, Zusak jokes, likely to be his “least-read book”—but three years of redrafts crafted a 580-page, tear-jerking doorstopper.
“It came about just from the stories I'd heard my whole life,” he says. “Stories of cities on fire, and teenage boys giving pieces of bread to starving Jewish people on their way to concentration camps. In almost the same way you learn to speak English or the language you grow up with, that world was in my head. It was given to me on a plate.”
Zusak penned three young adult novels before The Book Thief and now writes full time, but he used to juggle part-time jobs as a cleaner, tutor and supply teacher. Being in the classroom was an experience he enjoyed, but—crippled by his own gentle manner—he questions his ability. “I don't know if teachers get the stick here that they get at home, but I think you need to have a certain killer instinct to do the job well,” he says. “I was pretty bad.” Writing was a better fit, and as “l;essentially quite a lazy person”, it is also the occupation that makes him feel “most awake and happy”.
Liesel in love
The book thief after whom his new novel is named is Liesel, a 10-year-old girl who moves to live with foster parents in Molching, near Munich, and develops a habit of filching books from her neighbours and Nazi bonfires. The story focuses on her life in decidedly unheavenly Himmel Street, where she forms close friendships with the exuberant boy next door, Rudy; her accordion-playing foster father, who teaches her to read; and later a Jewish refugee who hides in their basement.
“In a lot of ways, the book is a love story between Liesel and everything around her,” says Zusak. “Liesel and the books; Liesel and her foster father; even her foster mother, who can't even bring herself to say that she loves her.”
If the formula feels familiar from countless other Holocaust-evacuation tales, Zusak has given it a twist by appointing Death as narrator—an omniscient, witty and reluctant transporter of dead souls, he is bound to work hand in glove with war but pricked by the sadness of his task. “Death is on hand to see all of our disasters, all of our miseries. He is haunted by everything he sees humans do, and he is telling this story to prove to himself that humans are actually worth it.”
But if Death feels pangs when he kills the characters he has come to love, Zusak can sympathise: “I was a bit of a mess by the end, there's no other way of saying it. I was sitting there bawling my eyes out as I was making these things happen.”
He cried most for Liesel's boy next door, Rudy, who was closely modelled on Zusak's father, and his hilarious recollections of Hitler Youth. “Dad said it was just this rabble,” he laughs, recounting failed marching exercises, a far cry from the propaganda reels showing smart columns of boys and girls marching in perfect time. “Some of those experiences my dad went through—like running laps for not getting the Fuhrer's birthday right—those are the stories that I'm interested in: those little pockets where not too many hands have gone in to pull them out.”
Zusak is unable to say whether he wrote the book for an adult or a young-adult audience, swearing allegiance “to the truth of the story more than any demographic.” But while it certainly presents an emotional challenge for teenage readers, Zusak is convinced that many will appreciate his approach.
“There are some teenage and adult readers who don't need to be patronised,” he explains. “We need books for teenagers that say: ‘Here is a book for you. It is written in your voice. It is about your concerns in this world we live in today.’ But we also need books that say: ‘This is for you, but you've got to step up here.’ If that's what The Book Thief is, I'm all the more happy for that.”
Source: Katherine Rushton, “Death Warmed Up,” in The Bookseller, Vol. 18, No. 2, November 17, 2006, p. 1.
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This book, part autobiography and part political diatribe, reveals the thoughts, motivations, and goals of one of the world's most destructive leaders. Written before his rise to prominence and after his first failed attempt to take over the government, Mein Kampf contains the same fervent nationalism, brutality, and racial hatred that later marked the era of Nazi rule. It provides important insight for those interested in understanding the tragic roots of World War II and the Holocaust.
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Historian Donald D. Wall provides a comprehensive overview of Germany before and during World War II. The book covers the conditions that brought about the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party, the German perspective on Hitler, and how such a massive atrocity as the Holocaust could have happened at all.
Wiesel, Elie, Night, Hill and Wang, 2006.
This haunting memoir chronicles the author's experiences as a young man in concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. Wiesel received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, primarily for the impact of this work.